Bass Lake Cheese Factory: 100 years and still kicking
For the last 27 years, Scott Erickson and his wife Julie, who died last summer, have owned Bass Lake Cheese Factory- on Valley View Trail in Somerset. However, Ericksons is only one of several people and companies who have owned the century-old business.
"Back when the business was established, this used to be a town called Four Corners. The house across the street was a school house, which is now a private residence, and then the corner building opposite us used to be a mercantile," Erickson said. "Back during Prohibition, they used to run moonshine out of there. Every little town or farming community used to have a small cheese plant because everyone was hauling milk cans using horse drawn trailers."
Since the cheese factory started in 1918, a lot of things have changed. According to Erickson, at one point, there were 2,100 cheese plants in the state of Wisconsin. That number is much lower, somewhere around 130 factories.
"Everything has gotten consolidated now and you have huge trucks that can haul milk. Even the dairy farms have gotten huge now. Everything has gotten bigger, bigger and bigger. In the area around here, we keep developing and developing, so we keep losing dairy farms that used to be real close by. That is one reason why we contract milk now through Hastings Creamery," Erickson said.
In 1937, Erickson said, there were 17 cheese plants in St. Croix County. Now, the Bass Lake Cheese Factory is one of a very few cheese factories left in the county. In order to stay open, Erickson and his wife did everything they could think of to diversify their business and morph Bass Lake Cheese from solely a cheese plant to a destination.
"When we bought it, we went in for strictly specialty cheese. It was Julie's idea to get into all of the retail end of it and I was able to focus mainly on the cheese part. We went back to the old way of making cheese by hand and tried to preserve the art of making cheese," Erickson said. "We just kept diversifying what we did. It wasn't just the cheese itself, it was anything associated with it. We expanded on the retail store and tried to do more sales direct to consumers."
Bass Lake Cheese currently has 12 employees, although Erickson still makes the cheese himself.
Erickson, who has has six certifications in the master cheesemaker program in Wisconsin, said that Bass Lake mostly sells its cheese to health food stores; County Market also carries Bass Lake cheeses in its deli area. The business currently procures cows milk from the Hastings Creamery, while it contracts with a farm in Scandia, Minn. for goat milk.
"Everything we do now is really quite small scale, real specialty. We make a lot of different varieties of cheese, mostly American-style cheeses, like your Colby, Cheddars, Jacks, Meunsters and Goudas. Things like that," Erickson said. "We do the same with the goat milk cheeses. That is what we are doing right now, but that is just the cheese making part of it.
"A lot of the equipment is still the same old equipment that we have made cheese with for years. All the equipment was grandfather claused in, but it still has to meet sanitation requirements."
History of the cheese factory
According to Erickson and the Bass Lake Cheese Factory website (blcheese.com), Adelard Vanasse built the cheese cactory in 1918 with the help of son Armond, at the intersection called Four Corners. By 1925 the factory started to appear in the Wisconsin Dairy Foods Commissioner Reports under the name of Bass Lake. The owner at that time was listed as C.A. Bulgrin.
At that time, the factory made Colby, Cheddar and other longhorn-style cheeses every day. Twice a week cream was picked up and butter was made.
In 1941, the Bulgrins sold the land to Ed and Hilda Ferber, who sold the land to a group of people who formed the Wissota Cheese Company, located out of White Bear Lake, Minn. They produced under the Bass Lake name as well as the Seakist Food name. Owners included Robert Ferrar, Sr.; Robert Ferrar, Jr.; Paul Grey; Rodney McMullin; K.W. VanGuilder; and Don Foedisch.
When the factory was undergoing remodeling and expansion in August 1973, a fire destroyed much of the building and equipment. However, the store was only closed for four days and the factory area was still producing cheese. In 1974 a larger retail store and gift shop was added. On Feb. 24, 1984 Wissota Cheese closed and was later purchased in August by Olfisco, Inc., who ran the factory under the name of Cheese World. The factory also went by the Bass Lake name.
Erickson began working for Ofisco in 1984 making cheese. Julie began working in the office in 1987. In October 1991, Scott and Julie Erickson purchased the factory. After doing some remodeling in the store area they opened for business in January 1992. Erickson is still using most of the equipment that was installed in 1958.
"In the 80s, the dairy industry got to be where either you got bigger or you got smaller and more specialty. My wife and I didn't own the company at that time, so we tried to convince the company that did own it to get into specialty cheese. That's when we got into the goat milk and sheep milk cheeses," Erickson said. "Back then, those kinds of cheese were still in the infant stages and weren't really popular. The money still wasn't there, at least not enough to keep the larger company interested. That's when they put it up for sale."
In 1994, Land-O-Lakes and International Aid asked Erickson to go to Romania and teach cheesemaking at a new factory. In 1998, the Ericksons were asked to go to Macedonia, where Scott taught cheesemaking and Julie taught marketing.
In 1998, Scott also became a Master Cheesemaker, which is a program in Wisconsin (the only one of its kind in the United States.) It gives cheesemakers a formal sequence of courses for cheese education. Erickson is currently a master in six different cheeses, including Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Muenster, Chevre, Colby and Juusto Leipa.
"The previous owner used to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and traveled all over Europe picking up old cheese recipes. Before he passed he gave me a 3-inch thick folder of cheese recipes with some that needed to be translated in order to read them," Erickson said. "Some of those cheeses I've experimented on in order to try and make something similar that can accommodate with the equipment and time frames we have."
Since the Ericksons purchased the business, the retail area of the factory has changed, with the addition of a full kitchen, a liquor license and a deck area.
"As time went by, we got to a point where we realized that we made all these specialty cheeses and people wanted to know what they went with, like wines and beers. So we applied for a liquor license and started pairing cheese up with particular beers or wines. And then we installed a kitchen and started cooking with our cheese to try and promote them that way," Erickson said.
Along with his passion for cheese, Erickson also has a passion for antiques, especially old dairy-related items. That's why, when you visit the Bass Lake Cheese Factory, the walls are lined with antiques from the old days.
"I collect and display all of those items to kind of let people know that the place has been here for a 100 years now. And to try to educate people in regards to the way cheese was made in Wisconsin and how there is still a viable business there for those types of cheeses," Erickson said. "Now, a lot of cheese is made with machines and automated, but we want to preserve the art of it and still make it by hand."
Erickson is considering adding a microbrewery onto the cheese factory, as well as a patio to the roof of the retail building. Erickson is also looking at combining the Bass Lake Cheese Factory 100th anniversary celebration activities with Dairy Month in June.
"We haven't made much of a profit either. It has always been a bit of a struggle to keep this place open. You kind of feel like you should keep it going. And I enjoy doing it, but you never get rich doing it," Erickson said.
For more information on the Bass Lake Cheese Factory, visit blcheese.com.