June 25, 2007

Winsted's Pure Milk history in a land of milk and money

During World War II, Pure Milk was considered the largest cheese plant in the US

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

Pure Milk was a creamery in Winsted that began in 1929, attracting many people to a land of milk producers with a chance to make money.

The business offered jobs at a time when they were scarce, as well as a steady income to farmers who were struggling to make a living.

It all started with just an old produce company business that caught the attention of three men who had the foresight to see its potential and decided to buy it.

Marcel Ochu and David Laurence, farmers, and Leonard Hermann, who operated a creamery at West Winsted, formed a partnership and called their new company Pure Milk Products Company.

To begin with, Pure Milk rented what was originally called the Hutchinson Produce building located at First Street N., but after the first year, they purchased the building.

In those early years, Pure Milk Products decided its future was in whole milk, a decision that was said to be ahead of its time.

It was the first creamery to pick up milk from dairy farmers with its own trucks. The first day in business, it recorded picking up 600 pounds of milk. By the end of World War II, Pure Milk was handling 600,000 pounds of milk per day.

Hauling milk was back-breaking work and there were no days off, according to Jerome Thiemann, Winsted resident. He hauled milk to Pure Milk Company from 1957 to 1961.

“When I returned home after the Korean war, you couldn’t buy a job,” Thiemann said.

He got his own truck and started a milk route in the Rockford and the Buffalo area.

“I put on 205 miles a day,” Thiemann said. “In the spring I would haul close to 30,000 pounds of milk a day. Those cans weighed about 80 pounds each. I was paid by the creamery, but the money was taken out of the farmer’s milk check.”

Thiemann’s dad, Carl Thiemann, also had difficulty finding steady employment until he began hauling milk for Pure Milk. He started in 1935 and hauled milk until 1960.

“My dad was an independent trucker who hauled milk to Pure Milk for 25 years,” Jerry said. “He had one of the first milk routes that ever hauled milk in there.”

To begin with, milk was separated by Pure Milk and the cream was sent to bottlers in the Twin Cities. The skim milk was manufactured into casein, the curd or cheesy part of milk, and the whey returned to farmers to feed hogs.

Harry Moore, a fourth owner, joined Pure Milk in 1937. He was with Borden’s casein division in Chicago, and his job sent him to Winsted to buy casein. At Moore’s suggestion, Pure Milk chose to build a casein plant in Winsted and then, Pure Milk asked Moore to come and work for it.

When the casein plant was built, it processed the product and sold it directly to the paper mills. That’s when the business began to grow.

The plant was then bringing in 100,000 pounds of milk per day. But it still had a problem with the whey.

Another company, called Western Condensing Company, was invited to build a whey plant alongside Pure Milk to dry the whey.

This process continued until World War II, when the federal government ruled that all products had to meet standards for human consumption. Pure Milk needed to make a change.

Very little cheese was made in Minnesota at the time, and the government was desperately in need of cheese for its armed forces.

Pure Milk Products realized that there was a great demand for cheese and, in 1941, wanted to begin to manufacture it in Winsted.

The first step was to find someone capable of running a cheese plant. Moore went to Wisconsin and brought back cheesemaker, Leo Hertel.

Hertel had years of experience in cheesemaking working at the creamery in Milladore, Wisc. which was owned by Hertel’s dad. He became the fifth owner of Pure Milk.

The cheese plant was built separate from the rest of Pure Milk. The milk was received in the intake room at the old plant. From the weigh tank, milk was pumped into four 30,000-pound stainless steel insulated holding tanks. Use of these tanks made operation of the plant flexible. In fact, it furnished a reservoir of milk for continuous operation.

It was a lot of work setting up equipment, training employees, and working out production schedules for the new cheese plant. When it opened, Pure Milk Products made 100,000 pounds of milk into cheese. This was unheard of in those days. It rotated its vats over and over, even though many people told them it wouldn’t work.

Before World War II ended, Pure Milk was handling 600,000 pounds of milk per day. It was the largest cheese plant in the US.

In 1945, Pure Milk Products became a corporation. It was that same year that the five owners were interviewed by a national butter and cheese journal, and Moore was asked what his title was.

Moore answered, “None of us at Pure Milk have any titles. We all do the things we’re best suited to do. We work together as a team and the results are good!”

Pure Milk acquired a sixth owner, Herman Peschken, who entered the business in 1946. He was a chemist, according to Bill Otto of Winsted, who worked at Pure Milk for 45 years.

It was rumored that Len Hermann and the other owners had a disagreement about how the creamery should be run, and Hermann sold out in 1948, leaving five owners who remained until the creamery was sold in 1970.

“After the war, the cheese business almost went kaput,” Ken Fleischacker said. “The government wasn’t buying anymore. Pure Milk was actually shut down for a time, but I don’t know for how long. I only know they were down. Then, they got into lactose.”

Fleischacker, a Winsted resident, started working at Pure Milk in 1953. He became whey supervisor in 1968.

“Pure Milk got into lactose in about 1950, working with Abbott Laboratories. There wasn’t anyone in Minnesota making lactose when Pure Milk started,” Fleischacker said. “It was a money maker.”

Lactose and de-lactose was made from whey. Fleischacker explained that the whey was only 6.5 percent solid. The rest was all liquid. After all of the liquid ran through an evaporator, 62 pecent came out like a syrup and was pumped into crystallizers that cooled it down.

“There was nothing left of whey that at one time, years ago, was fed to the hogs,” Fleischacker said.

“From about 1,200,000 pounds of whey water you would end up with this syrup, which was probably about 40,000 pounds of lactose,” he said.

One of the products that uses lactose would be baby formula, and M&Ms uses it for candy. De-lactose is used for cheese filling, candy, and some kinds of animal feed.

“About 1967, lactose started selling and the price was up,” Fleischacker said. “We were making a lot of money. Pure Milk started to increase wages as the lactose price was coming up.”

With the demand for lactose increasing, Pure Milk needed so much lactose they set up three additional plants that began to produce it, too. The plants were in Iowa, South Dakota, and in Watkins, Minn.

As the Winsted business continued to grow, a new lactose plant was built in 1966, a new cheese plant was built, and entirely new equipment was installed in 1967.

Pure Milk had its ups and downs, but the business had survived for 40 years. At one time it employed as many as 140 people. However, the dairy business was changing quickly and Pure Milk’s owners were getting older.

“We knew five years before Pure Milk was sold that something would happen,” Fleischacker said. “We knew that basically, it would be sold, we just didn’t know when. There was no one in their family interested in taking over the business. I would talk to Leo. He wouldn’t come out and say it, but would say, ‘you know we are geting up in age. Things are going to have to be changing down the road.’”

Mid America Dairymen were interested in buying Pure Milk. It had purchased other plants, as well.

“Mid Am knew nothing about lactose and it was starting to take off in a big way. We were really making money when Mid Am first wanted to buy the place. They only wanted to buy the cheese part of it. They didn’t want the lactose part of it,” Fleischacker.

Pure Milk had the final say and all of the owners agreed it would not consider selling only part of the business. Whoever they sold to, would have to buy all of it.

Pure Milk sells its entire business to Mid America

May 1, 1970, Pure Milk Coporation was purchased by Mid America Dairymen, whose headquarters were in Springfield, Mo.

All five original owners became millionaires when they sold Pure Milk, according to all those interviewed.

“Pure Milk hated to sell. I remember the day they sold. Dave Laurence came out to pin up the notice. He shook his head and said, ‘if we were only younger.’ He was worried about what was going to happen to us,” Fleischacker said.

After it purchased Pure Milk, Mid Am modernized the entire process.

“Things changed when we became Mid Am,” Fleischacker said. “We just became a number later on.”

“Everything got speeded up,” Fleischacker said. “First, they put in evaporators to handle the whey. Then, the cheese processing was speeded up. Finally, the milk pasturizing.”

Mid Am was buying other plants, too, in Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas. They were also affiliated with other creameries and milk was shipped to Minnesota from all over the US. Trying to control the quantity of milk was a major problem for Mid Am in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We would get a surplus of milk and not know what to do with it. Once in a while we would have a shortage. Then, there would be such a surplus they would have to dump the milk. They would bring the milk from other states and we just couldn’t handle anymore milk,” Fleischacker said.

After its first upgrade of the Pure Milk plant, Mid Am became very conservative in its spending.

“What really changed everything was the cheese making,” Fleischacker said. “It was time to update the cheese plant. It needed a big overhaul. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the way the cheese was processed.

“It was just that other plants were changing and using better equipment and Mid Am was staying the the same.”

By 1995, everyone knew something was up. Mid Am had other plants that were making lactose using a new method, but there were no changes made in the Winsted plant.

“It should have been done here, everybody and their brother said,” Fleischacker said. “But the boys in Springfield made the decision. I think they kicked themselves for their decsion later on, but that is beside the point.”

Sept. 1, 1997, Mid Am merged with three other co-ops to become Dairy Farmers of America.

Although Fleischacker had retired in 1995, he was called back to work on a number of occasions.

One of those occasions was in 1999, when Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) quit using seven evaporators used to dry the whey, each of them 26 feet long. DFA had decided to use them in a plant in Luvington, Texas.

“I was there in 1978, when they put the evaporators in,” Fleischacker said. “It took six months to set them up. DFA wanted me to come back and get all of the paper work together so they could be moved. When I heard they were taking those evaporators out, I thought taking them out would cost a fortune.”

When Fleischacker had all of the paper work on the evaporators, he had a stack 2 feet high. He sent all of it down to Texas in a box.

“Then, this guy from Texas was up here to see what the cost would be to take all seven evaporators out through the roof with a crane,” Fleischacker said.

“They thought they would save about $25 million by taking these out and taking them down to Texas. But they never got them out and I never heard from him again.”

Dairy Farmers of America sold the business May 18, 2000 to Dairi Concepts

Dairi Concepts closed its doors December 2005. At the time, it employed 13 people.

Today, the building is owned by FourK Holdings LLC, whose owners are: Bruce Koch (Buffalo), Jeff Koch (Winsted), Jim Koch (Winsted), and Wayne Koch (Blackduck).

There was a lot of recent excitement outside of the old creamery, May 18, when seven evaporators installed by Mid Am in 1978 were removed.

“When Mid Am put the evaporators in, they were leased from a company in California,” Fleischacker said. “I think it cost $1,200,000 to put them in and I don’t know what it cost to lease them for 10 years, but I know we bought them back in 1988 for $300,000. It was a good deal. Now, they are worth three times that.”

“The evaporators were sent to Chile,” Fleischacker said. “I don’t know what it cost to take them out, but I know it wasn’t cheap. But where they are going, it will probably only cost them half as much as putting in new ones.”

Information for this article was obtained from newsletters and data provided by Jim Hertel, and interviews with Ken Fleischacker, Bill Otto, and Jerome Thiemann.

Photos are from Jim Hertel, Bernie Libor, and Jerome Thiemann.

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