by Darlene Psota
I suppose most travelers driving through North Loup, Nebraska would see only a small town, just one of many that dot the roadways of rural America. But for me, driving down Highway 11 and seeing the water tower come into view, the years drop away and the spell that is North Loup is cast once more.
In my mind’s eye, I see more than just a small town. I see people with hopes and dreams. I see homes and businesses that have withstood time. I see a proud past and a bright future. I see love and faith and integrity.
I see these things because, no matter where I am physically, North Loup was, and always will be, my home. No matter how often I return, every time I turn into my Dad’s driveway and see him standing at the kitchen door watching for me, I am filled with a joy and peace that comes from a heart filled with precious childhood memories.
A Memory of Cheddar
I would like to share one of those memories with you – that of my father, Vic King, and the North Loup Cheese Factory. In 1942, with only a few dollars to his name, wife Ada and their 3-week old baby to support, my dad took a job at the Cheese Factory as a cheese maker, later being promoted to manager.
The cheese factory was established by local farmers as a co-op. They produced two kinds of cheeses – cheddar and colby. A cheese maker from Wisconsin had been hired to train the employees and get things running smoothly. At the time Dad started to work there, the majority of the cheese was being sent to the west coast to military bases.
The long steel vats in which the cheese was made were housed on the main floor. Five or six milk trucks would make their daily rounds to the local farms to collect the milk and bring the full steel milk cans back to the factory. They were unloaded on a small dock, put on flat carts to be taken over to the vats into which the milk was emptied. I remember timing my visits so I could be there when the milk came in and get a ride on the carts with the cans.
Souring the Milk
Once the milk was poured into the vats, rennent was added to sour the milk. Then the long blades, attached to a track above the vats, would begin their journey from one end of the vat and then back to the other – stirring and cutting until the coagulated milk had turned into curds and whey. At that point, the whey, a cloudy liquid, was drained off, leaving only the curds in the vat. (I asked Dad one time what they did with the whey. I was surprised to learn that people would buy it to use in making butter and for cooking. He also told me that when my older brother was born, he was allergic to milk. Dr. Hemphill put him on a diet of whey as it was considered a good source of protein.)
The curds were put into cheese cloth bags – layer upon layer – and hung, allowing any excess whey to drip out. Then the curds were placed into “cans” or molds to be pressed by the cheese press into the traditional shape, soaked in brine to form the rind, and finally taken downstairs to be placed in the cooler to “age.” The longer it aged, the sharper and stronger the flavor.
A Bill Vodehnal Beeline
Dad recalls one time when they needed more space in which to store the cheeses. They discovered that the cool, constant temperatures of the Chalk Mines, located just 4 miles east of town, would be a perfect place for the aging process. So, once a week crates of cheeses were trucked over to the mine. Since it was an active mine, the cheese had to be concealed to avoid someone taking off with them. Dad’s favorite story was that Bill Vodehnal, our town pharmacist, somehow knew when the cheese would be coming back into town and would make a beeline to the cheese factory to buy it straight off the truck!
Once ready to be sold and shipped, the rounds of cheese were dipped in paraffin wax for sealing, stamped “Nebraska #1 cheese” and dated. Dad said the Cheese Factory’s finest hour was the time they got an order for cheese from Wisconsin.
The factory also churned butter, and bottled and sold milk and cream that the farmers would bring into town on Saturday nights. They sold Fairmont ice cream as well. I remember how I would stand at the door, waiting for Dad to come home – hoping he had a small brown sack in his hands. If he did, that meant we would be having our favorite dessert that night!
A slaughterhouse was added on (later being moved to the east end of town as the cheese factory was located right off the main street and it was decided perhaps this wasn’t the best place for it.) The meat was processed and packaged in the basement of the factory. A locker was installed as well. Local people could rent out space to store their meat or the overflow from their refrigerators at home.
Grocer Mills Hill
Mom would stop there every Friday to take out the packages of meat she needed for the coming week, and replace it with fresh meat just purchased that morning from Mills Hill’s grocery store. There was a large heavy door on the locker and the moment it was opened the vapor from the cold would roll out. There was a light on the outside of the door. By turning on the switch as you went in, the light would let them know that someone was in the locker. If the light stayed on too long, someone would check to see if everything was all right.
I asked Dad if anyone had ever actually got locked in. He said only once. It was when he was first hired and it was the then-manager’s son! He didn’t think he’d been in there very long, but he said they didn’t see him around the factory much after that.
Cheese Factory Co-Op
My Grandfather, Arthur Stillman, was part of the Cheese Factory co-op. I remember him coming to town on Saturday night, going up to my Dad’s office to get his “paycheck.” He would stay most of the evening, waiting for Grandma to get her errands done, visiting with the other farmers and Dad’s secretary of many years. Her name was Helen Munson and as far as I was concerned, her “claim to fame” was letting me sit at her desk and type on her old manual typewriter. She would also take me downstairs in the elevator, quite a novelty at the time. Dad thinks the elevator is still in existence, having been bought by a car dealership that sat on main street and was used to transport parts from the basement to the showroom floor.
My Dad worked at North Loup Cheese Factory for over 20 years. Both Dad and the factory played such a major role in my life. Sadly, the Cheese factory was closed down due to declining dairy herds and increasing production costs and government regulations. Of course so many of the people who worked there with Dad are gone now. But they are still in my memories and I cherish the years I had growing up around them.
In the image below you can see, from left to right, Vic King, my dad, who was a cheesemaker and the manager; Arthur Stillman, member of the North Loup Cheese Factory Co-Op and farmer; and Dwayne Wert, a local North Loup farmer.
Someone once asked me what I thought North Loup would be like in another 10 or 20 years. I’m an optimist. The values taught and lived throughout those years still exist. I experience it every time I go back to see Dad. The world needs towns like North Loup. The world can’t exist without towns like North Loup. They embody everything that is good and innocent and worthwhile.
Businesses, like the Cheese Factory, may come and go, but North Loup will go on. It will continue to witness travelers passing through. Who knows – they may see more than a just a small town too. And the spell that is North Loup will be cast once more.
(About the Authors: After leaving the Cheese Factory, Vic King was employed by the North Loup Lumber Yard, where he worked until his retirement 20 years later. He continues to live in his home on the west edge of town. He celebrated his 90th birthday in September, 2004 with an Open House honoring his contribution to the community. Darlene, his youngest daughter, helped Vic compile his memoirs and submitted them to Go Inside in his honor. She lives in Shenandoah, Iowa but continues to visit her Dad on a regular basis.)