Say “Cheese”!: Ohio’s Dairy Industry

Couple milking dairy cows in Wooster, Ohio, 1952. Via Ohio Memory.
Couple milking dairy cows in Wooster, Ohio, 1952. Via Ohio Memory.

The earliest evidence of humans milking cows for their own consumption dates to 4000 B.C.E. in Great Britain and Northern Europe. After analysis, fat molecules from dairy products have been found on potsherds from this period. Scientists have since hypothesized that a genetic mutation called “lactase persistence” occurred around this same time, allowing humans to digest lactose. Thus began our long relationship with cows, milk, and milk products.

Licking County Dairy Club member with her cow at the Ohio State Fair, 1939. Via Ohio Memory.
Licking County Dairy Club member with her cow at the Ohio State Fair, 1939. Via Ohio Memory.

Though there is no evidence that the consumption of dairy products dates that far back in Ohio, we do know that cows raised for meat and dairy were brought to the colonies by immigrants in the 1600s. Ohio’s first permanent European settlement, Marietta, was established in 1788, and so it is likely that domestic cows have been in Ohio for over 200 years. Items relating to dairies and dairy animals in Ohio Memory’s collections are far more recent than that, but they give those who are interested in these topics a nice picture of the practice of raising dairy animals and producing milk and milk products.

Typically, when we think of milk, we think of cows. Again, cows have been domesticated for thousands of years and have been used by humans for nearly as long. Furthermore, cow milk is most readily available to us and is more typically used for drinking and production of other products than is milk from other animals, such as sheep or goats. Ohio Memory’s collections reflect this, with dairy pictures depicting cows more frequently than other animals. That being said, there is a single picture of a dairy goat, taken by renowned photographer Joe Munroe, that is simple and charming and a pleasure to view.

Aging Swiss cheese wheels in Stark County, via Ohio Memory.
Aging Swiss cheese wheels in Stark County, via Ohio Memory.

The Ohio Dairymen’s Association was established in 1865 as an offshoot of the American Dairymen’s Association. By 1900, their mission read as follows: “…to encourage dairying by a more united and intelligent effort which shall command the confidence of all who are interested in this branch of farm industry. That the quality of dairy product may be improved, so that with a better quality of milk, butter and cheese, we may find a better market and more satisfactory prices.” In Ohio Memory, you can find reports from the Association’s annual meetings, ranging in date from 1899 to 1907. Reports include member rosters, making them of particular interest to genealogists. They also include lists of skimming stations, creameries and cheese factories, with those that made Swiss cheese separated from other cheese factories beginning in 1903; unfortunately, the reports do not explain why this is the case. Readers can also find information on developments in dairy product manufacture, including published papers read to attendees and with accompanying comments.

The dairy industry continues to play a significant role in Ohio, and we are certain that our readers can name numerous local creameries and dairy processors. Many of these organizations welcome visitors with tours and are happy to answer questions about their products and their animals. After reading about the dairy industry of the past, why not reach out to modern manufacturers to learn more about the processes of today?


Thank you to Shannon Kupfer, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

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