The end of a dairy era: Calhoun Creamery will cease all operations after more than 120 years in business at its historical Churchtown location

A look at the past as its future draws to a close ... Pictured above is an aerial photo of Calhoun Creamery in the 1970s. On the left side of the photo are some of the can trucks that would travel to farms to pick up milk in cans. The creamery stopped taking cans in 1978 and required all farmers to install bulk milk tanks. As of January 1 of this year, Calhoun Creamery members joined the Foremost Farms cooperative. The cheese store currently remains open for the time being at the Churchtown location, with plans in progress for disposition of the property and an auction to be held in March of this year. Submitted photo.

Butter carton ... Pictured above is a Calhoun Creamery butter carton, circa the 1970s, depicting the product that once graced grocery store dairy shelves both near and far. In 1956, the creamery made and sold 369,000 lbs. of butter and shipped over four million lbs. of milk. In comparison, this past year, Calhoun Creamery sold over 191 million lbs. of milk. Photo by Lissa Blake.

A sign of historical quality ... Pictured above is an image of one of the Calhoun Creamery signs that could be found on members’ farms. Calhoun Creamery members have now joined the Foremost Farms cooperative and disposition of the creamery’s Churchtown property and equipment will be handled by its farmer members, with an auction planned for March of this year. Photo by Lissa Blake.

by Lissa Blake

After 122 years in business, Calhoun Creamery in Churchtown is closing its doors.

January 1 of this year, Calhoun Creamery member farmers joined the Foremost Farms cooperative. “The transition gives Calhoun Creamery members the assurance of a long-term, steady market for their milk,” said a press release issued by Foremost Farms in regard to that transition.

Foremost Farms and Calhoun Creamery have a long-standing history, as Foremost Farms has purchased milk from Calhoun since the late 1990s.

“Combining our milk supplies benefits Calhoun and Foremost Farms members,” said Michael Doyle, President & CEO of Foremost Farms. “Calhoun needs a market for its milk, and Foremost is addressing the need for a stronger presence in that area.”

Calhoun Creamery Manager Michelle Donahue explained Calhoun Creamery was started in the spring of 1896 by 20 local farmers who owned 210 cows.

“Their first meeting was March 21, 1896 at the Calhoun School in Churchtown, where they voted to form a creamery,” said Donahue.

At that first meeting, there also were representatives from other local creameries, such as the Oak Leaf Creamery of Lycurgus, Waterville Creamery and Ice Cave Creamery.

“They signed a paper creating the Farmers Cooperative Creamery of Lansing Ridge. A week later, they changed the name to Calhoun Creamery Company,” she said.

By May of that year, construction was under way. The creamery actually began operations November 2, 1896. George Turner was hired as the creamery’s first butter maker.

The labor to build the creamery was $85. At the time, they also built an icehouse. The next spring, they built a house for the butter maker, which cost a total of $354.

A new creamery building was built in 1925. P.E. Rethwisch of Lansing got the contract for just under $10,000. D.D. Ronan, who was a board member at the time, was appointed overseer of the project. Ronan’s great-great-grandson, Tyler Ronan, currently works at the creamery.

Donahue said creamery records show an agent from Cedar Rapids helped the farmers connect with a Fitch, Rowland and Company from New York, NY for a butter contract. “A bill of lading from 1937 shows the shipment of 20,000 lbs. This was 285 71-lb. tubs,” said Donahue.

The creamery also made one-pound packages of butter and shipped it by train. “They took the butter up to Lehigh Valley Railroad Co. in Waukon,” Donahue said.

Another document shows that a shipment of butter packed in two tons of ice was shipped June 30, 1937. It traveled to Port Huron, MI, where another 1-1/2 tons of ice were added, before being shipped on to Borden Sales Company in New York, NY, where it arrived July 3.

Records show that September 17, 1942, three members of the board of directors, the secretary and the butter maker were going to Luana and West Union to check out demonstrations of a new butter churn. They had an accident on their way on Cherry Valley Road and two of the men were killed. They were W.G. Marti, secretary, and board member William Thompson.

The creamery bought only cream until 1955, when they expanded and purchased processing equipment for whole milk. In 1956, they made and sold 369,000 lbs. of butter and shipped over four million lbs. of milk. In comparison, this past year, Calhoun sold over 191 million lbs. of milk.

Butter was sold at the creamery, but was also delivered to stores in Waukon and Lansing. The creamery started selling milk to Swift and Company of La Crosse, WI in 1959. They manufactured one-block pounds of butter until the late 1960s, selling the rest as buttermilk.

Trucks picked up the milk cans on the farm, which would be held in a tank until it was pumped into a truck and shipped to La Crosse, WI. When Swift and Co. went out of business in 1965, seven creameries came in to bid on the milk. The board decided to partner with the Northeast Iowa Coop in Luana, but only stayed with them for one year.

In 1966, they switched to Wisconsin Dairies (which later became Foremost Farms) and shipped all the milk to Richland Center, WI. In 1971, they switched again to Meinerz Dairy of Fredericksburg, which  later merged with Beatrice Cheese.

In 1978, the creamery stopped taking canned milk, requiring all of its farmers to purchase a bulk tank. By the 1980s, the creamery expanded its butter store to include a few varieties of cheese. The creamery took both Grade A and Grade B milk. They quit taking Grade B milk in 1997.

Donahue said through the years, Churchtown became a popular stop for people on their way to the river or their cabins. The creamery expanded its selection to include sliced cheese, block cheese, shredded cheese, cottage cheese and the ever-popular cheese curds. The creamery has had more than 80 different varieties of cheeses available.

“People love to stop here to buy cheese. We also started making gift boxes we ship all over the country. Last year we made over 700 gift boxes,” she said.

Donahue said for the past 18 years, Calhoun has negotiated a contract with Foremost Farms every year.

“Everybody in the dairy industry knows there is an oversupply right now, and the price is depressing… When we asked if they would take on all of our patrons, they didn’t know if they’d have room for our milk, and they didn’t want our property or buildings,” said Donahue.

“Now all of our patrons have become Foremost Farm members,” she said.

As this is not a merger, Calhoun member farmers will handle the disposition of the property in Churchtown, as well as share in any proceeds from the sale. “We plan to have an auction in March,” she said.

Donahue said although the creamery is no longer serving as a transfer station, the cheese store remains open for now. She said although it was a difficult decision to close the creamery, the farmers are pleased to have a market for their milk.

“We are pleased that our farmers have the opportunity to join Foremost Farms. This will secure their future in an ever-changing dairy industry. Foremost offers diversified dairy products both domestically and internationally and we appreciate being part of their team,” said Donahue.

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