The Cheesemaker's Daughters

Life in a 1920s Tillamook cheese factory.

Story by Eva M. Bushman

Here come the Culbersons," people in Tillamook would say when the young girls, Marie and Helen Culberson, walked into a room. "It's the cheesemaker's daughters." For almost two decades, their father Floyd was head cheesemaker at the Maple Leaf Creamery, located just east of the site of the modern consolidated Tillamook cheese factory. The family lived much of that time on the second floor of the creamery building, so the constant odor of cooking cheese and stale fumes permeated their clothes, their skin, their hair, and their few belongings.

My mother, Marie, and my aunt Helen recently told me about their lives in the cheese factory during the 1920s. They remembered that they used to stand every morning with their older brother Robert as the dairy farmers drove into the creamery yard with their wagons groaning with huge cans of rich milk. Floyd inspected the milk for taste and tested for butterfat content.

Marie remembered when she was about 5 or 6 that she ran out to greet Mr. Glad every day as he delivered his cans of milk. He seemed like a giant in his beard, cap, and overalls. He would pull her up on the seat beside him and she'd ride around while the milk cans were emptied into vats inside the factory, then refilled with whey from the whey tanks. Whey was the liquid left over from making cheese. The dairymen fed the whey to their livestock and Floyd gave it to his hogs.

Steam was used to cook the milk to make the cheese. Floyd got up at 4 a.m. each morning to get the fire going.

The cheese factory itself was a large room where the milk was cooked in long metal vats. Workers pushed the milk around with wooden rakes to separate the curds and whey. When the curds were set and the whey had drained off completely, the curds were covered and left to solidify. Then they were cut into pieces with a wired frame and salted to help with the preservation. Eventually the new cheese was packed into wooden hoops and stored in the curing room. It was a race against time to get the milk processed while still of the highest quality. The factory floor was a busy place, with the helpers working the vats and Floyd darting around the room performing tests to determine the perfect timing for the next processing step. The same complex dance was performed every day at the same time at each of the other 19 cheese factories in the Tillamook County Creamery Association.

The children stayed out of the way when the cheese processing was at its most intense. Afterward they could roam through the factory. Helen remembered cutting into the curds for a snack. This was the only way Helen ever liked cheese. Marie delighted in dipping her "dirty paws" into the butter churn in the factory. Excess butterfat not needed in the cheese was used to make butter. This was another good way to preserve the never-ending flow of milk.

Eventually, when the cheese was cured sufficiently, it was dipped into hot paraffin to help maintain its quality. This provided great entertainment for the cheesemaker's children, who tried to skate on the spilled paraffin. Needless to say, they fell down a lot.

In the cheddar-cheese-colored Maple Leaf Creamery building, the living space was at the front of the upper story. In the rear was a big room where the children played and potlucks were held with families of the heads of the other cheese factories.

The girls learned to cook on the wood stove. Their mother, Vera, made a lot of angel food cakes since eggs were plentiful. Floyd raised chickens and pigs in the yard behind the cheese factory. In the garden, they grew whatever the coastal weather would allow, including carrots, corn, and apples. The family raised most of their own food. Some meats were smoked to preserve them. Hamburger and sausage patties were fried and then stored in crocks in their own grease.

Marie remembered hiking up into the hills about a mile and a half with her dad on his regular inspection trips to the source of their drinking water, a reservoir that served the Wilson River Loop area. In the springtime there were always johnny-jump-ups and lambs tongues in the meadows and trilliums in the woods. From the hillside they could look out over the valley with its wide stretches of verdant dairy land and the town of Tillamook in the distance.

One favorite day trip for the family was to Bay Ocean, located on an island on Tillamook Bay. [Today it's a spit.] When a gravel road was put in to get there, this was a major improvement over the rutted mud tracks from earlier times. The family also traveled to the beach at Oceanside frequently, which involved driving on a bone-rattling plank road aptly described as corduroy. The day-long journey to Portland was also over a corduroy road.

Maple Leaf Creamery

The Maple Leaf Creamery and Helen Culberson (below)

Helen Culberson

Cheesemakers, circa 1920

Cheesemakers, circa 1920 (above) and the Mohler cheese room (below).

Mohler Cheese Room

The Culbersons, circa 1927

The Culbersons, circa 1927.

In 1929, the creamery association built the family a house between the cheese factory and the Maple Leaf School. Now the Culbersons could go into town without wearing the rancid odor of cooking cheese and paraffin.

The nearby Wilson River flooded about twice a year. One year after they moved into the new house, the flood water rose up to the third step of the front porch and the children watched enormous red spawning chinook salmon from the Wilson River swimming in their front yard. During the first Tillamook burn in 1933, Floyd stayed up all night to keep the house from igniting with embers drifting coastward from the forest fire.

Even after they moved to Portland in 1934, everyone in the family continued to eat Tillamook sharp cheddar all of their lives.

Oregon Coast September/October 2007

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