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Big cheese: Bongards’ Creameries in Carver County among the largest cheese-making plants in the world

Bongards’ Creameries began as a small local creamery, helping farmers to process their milk.

Aerial view of Bongards' Creamery in 1969. Photo by Vincent H. Mart.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Bongards’ Creameries began as a small local creamery, helping farmers to process their milk. Since its beginning in 1908, it has grown to include satellite factories in Perham and Humboldt, Tennessee. It has also increased its range of products to include cheese and whey. In the twenty-first century, Bongards’ Creameries is among the largest cheese-making plants in the world.

The Carver County site where Bongards’ Creameries is located once held a skimming station. This structure was destroyed in 1908. Soon after, a group of local farmers got together to form a new cooperative (coop) creamery. They began construction on a twenty-six by one hundred foot creamery building in November of 1908.

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This new coop creamery opened its doors in February of 1909. Fred W. Hedtke, who had helped to operate the former skimming station, was hired as chief butter maker and manager. He held that position for the next thirty years, until heart trouble forced him into retirement in June 1938.

When Fred Hedtke retired, Burnell E. (Jack) Budahn became plant manager. He would hold this position for the next fifty years. This stable, long-term management helped Bongards’ Creamery prosper and become a dairy industry leader.

Bongards’ Creameries started with making butter in 1909. In 1942, the factory began producing natural (unprocessed) cheese. Whey products, such as whey powder, were added in 1945. Processed cheese manufacturing was added to the product line in 1976. Although cheese and whey are still made in the early twenty-first century, butter making was discontinued around the 1970s, when it was decided it cost too much to replace the equipment needed relative to the amount of butter being sold. In the early days, all coop members took turns working in the factory to make these products, until expansion and success created the need for the coop to hire permanent factory workers.

In 1942, Bongards’ Creameries expanded for the first time. The expansion included an office, laboratory, cheese-making room, and a new refrigerated storeroom. In 1949, the creamery expanded again, making Bongards’ Creameries one of the largest cheese factories in the world. By 1951, the factory was producing nearly 1,000,000 pounds of cheese per month. There have been many expansions since then, including satellite factories in Perham in 2003 and Humboldt, Tennessee in 2010.

In 1958, Bongards’ Creameries celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, highlighting a few production milestones. When Bongards’ began in 1908, twenty-five coop members brought milk to the creamery. By 1958, nearly one thousand of them delivered milk there. By 1938, the plant was processing 7,000,000 pounds of milk. By 1958, production had expanded so greatly the plant was processing nearly twenty times what they were in 1938.

1968 was another important year for the plant. That year, Bongards’ Creameries, and manager Jack Budahn, introduced their patented “automated continuous system. ” This machine uses all parts of the milk to make cheese and whey products. It covers two floors. The machine first mixes rennet and milk to form curds. It then salts the curds and separates out butterfat, whey and water to be used in other products. The water is used on nearby farmland. The finished product is forty pound cheese blocks. In 1987, progress continued by expanding the continuous cheddaring machine into a second room, with the first devoted to cheddaring and milling the cheese curd, the second to salting the milled curd.

A setback occurred at the creamery in 1969. An explosion at the plant in 1969, thought to be caused by a buildup of gas in one of the warehouses. It destroyed two buildings and badly damaged five more. Total damage was estimated at $750,000, but the creamery rapidly repaired and rebuilt.

In the twenty-first century, Bongards’ Creameries remains a cooperative creamery and a leader in the dairy industry. The creamery hosts many visitors every year. Tourists purchase milk products and souvenirs from the creamery store, and have their pictures taken with the large fiberglass cow out front, purchased from a company in Sparta, Wisconsin in October 1970.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.