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Arthur Parkin and the giant cheese stunt that put Minnesota’s dairy industry on the map

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Parkin created a cheese form four-feet-six-inches in height and nineteen feet in circumference.

Cheese making in Minnesota took a backseat to milk and butter production during the nineteenth century. In the early 1900s, Arthur Parkin of Pine Island changed that picture.

Arthur W. Parkin’s rise in Minnesota’s dairy industry can be traced to Professor Stephen M. Babcock. The University of Wisconsin professor, who taught Parkin in 1894, devised a reliable test for butterfat in milk. That simple test helped American dairy farmers weed out cows producing low-quality milk and improve their herds.

The twenty-two-year-old Parkin took his knowledge to Auburndale, Wisconsin, where he became a cheesemaker. Around 1900, the dairying expert moved to Pine Island near the border between Minnesota’s Goodhue and Dodge Counties. This small-sized district was the state’s cheese-making hotbed. Swiss immigrants had been making and selling cheese there since the late 1860s. Parkin got right to work, setting up thirty-eight new cheese factories in the eight years following his arrival.

Overall, state cheese making fell during the early 1900s because the University of Minnesota’s dairy school, influenced by dairy farming expert Oren C. Gregg, emphasized butter making. In southern Goodhue County, however, cheese production soared. Credit for that boom went to Parkin, along with other producers like the Baumgartner brothers, Walter, Jake, and John. Cheese-making cooperatives at Sogn, Roscoe and Minneola added production. In 1906, Goodhue County produced 1.1 million pounds of cheese. The amount more than doubled that of its second-placed Dodge County neighbor.

Arthur Parkin believed Goodhue County cheese makers should publicize their efforts. In 1911 he came up with an eye-catching publicity stunt. Pine Island would make a giant cheese. He convinced eighteen cheese factory owners within a twelve-mile radius of the village to help him. The dairy owners brought more than seven thousand pounds of curd to a railroad flat car. Awaiting them was a Parkin-created cheese form four-feet-six-inches in height and nineteen feet in circumference. Parkin’s cheddar cheese was made of seventy thousand pounds of milk, the production of 3,300 cows.

After curing, Parkin shipped the giant cheese to the Minnesota State Fair. On the way, he gave the three-ton cheddar a promotional truck ride through downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Arthur Parkin and a bugler sat atop of the mammoth cheese during the drive. A New Jersey firm later purchased the cheese for forty cents a pound — ten cents more than market price.

Parkin enjoyed sharing his knowledge and often served as a dairy show judge. The University of Minnesota also selected him to be an instructor at its annual month-long seminars on dairy science in 1901. He continued to teach until 1912.

Because of his expertise, state agriculture officials offered the respected Pine Island man the job of Minnesota’s first dairy and food inspector. He held the office from 1907 to 1913. The agriculture department endorsed Pine Island’s importance in dairying by appointing town residents, John J. Roch and John B. Baumgartner, as Parkin’s immediate successors.

Arthur Parkin’s work in the state’s cheese industry led to the July 10, 1920 formation of the Minnesota Cheese Producers Association (MCPA) in Pine Island. Roots of the American Dairy Association of Minnesota, organized in 1939, are also found in the community, thanks to the ideas of the MCPA and a forty-thousand-dollar grant from the state legislature.

Pine Island voters elected Arthur Parkin mayor, and he held that position for twenty-six years. He was also president of the town’s Commercial Club for sixteen years. Parkin died in 1963.

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

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