FOND DU LAC - What was once a bustling cheese factory in the city is slated for redevelopment into multifamily housing and has been nominated for placement on the National and State Register of Historic Places.
The abandoned Winnebago Cheese Factory at 233 W. Division St. once employed generations of city residents from 1914 to 1957 and is considered a rare, surviving example of Fond du Lac's cheese industry.
The city was home to several cheese-related businesses in operation between the 1890s and 1940s following industrialization of commercial cheesemaking. Today, very few buildings associated with this history remain.
In April 2020, the city's redevelopment authority purchased the building and property from Woolhether Holdings LLC as part of ongoing, proactive efforts to revitalize the Brooke Street Corridor, said Community Development Director Dyann Benson.
A request for proposals for redevelopment of the property followed, and Commonwealth Corporation was selected for its plans to transform both the former cheese factory as well as the former Northern Casket Factory at 16 N. Brooke St. into multifamily units.
Work on the project is expected to begin the first quarter of 2022. Historic tax credits will help finance the adaptive re-use of the building.
The Brooke Street Corridor includes vacant and underused properties between Lewis Street and Second Street. It once served as a major manufacturing hub clustered around the west branch of the Fond du Lac River near the railroad line, but businesses have since left the area for new sites in Fond du Lac’s industrial parks and elsewhere.
The city's Historic Preservation Commission approved the factory's nomination as a historic place. The nomination was drafted by MacRostie Historic Advisors LLC on behalf of Commonwealth and includes a series of photographs that provide a rare glimpse inside the factory.
The property’s five phases of construction span 1914 to 1955 and include the original two-story facility with a rear cold storage block, a three-story west addition in 1920, a three-story north addition in 1925, two one-story western additions in the 1930s and a north loading dock in 1955.
The following history was compiled by Shannon Winterhalter at MacRostie Historic Advisors:
Winnebago Cheese Company was incorporated in 1906 by Frank Schujahn, George H. Lindsay and A.G. Dana with $12,000 in capital. The company’s first location was a warehouse at 37 Forest Ave., one block south of competitors Fond du Lac Cheese and Butter Company and Fond du Lac Cold Storage Company.
Construction of the new building in 1914 by local architect Frank Stepnoski contained an ice chamber at the top built to hold about 500 tons of ice.
The wholesale business purchased large quantities of raw cheeses from local manufacturers, which arrived at its facility in massive wheels. Winnebago’s primary brands were Chief Brand Cheese (a brick cheese) and Nebia Cheese (a Longhorn cheese).
Schujahn’s reputation for honesty and fair dealing made him a natural leader in Wisconsin’s cheese industry. When he died suddenly in 1932, at the age of 60, the company was sold to J. Harmon Wheeler, former president of Lakeshire Cheese Company and president of the Wheeler Corporation, and R.J. Brown, sales manager of the National Cheese Producers Federation.
When Wheeler retired in 1952, the business was sold to Borden Inc. Operations were moved to Plymouth in 1957, and the West Division Street facility was leased to Concord Cheese Corporation.
Following that company’s bankruptcy in 1967, the Schujahn family sold the property. Park Cheese Company, a manufacturer and distributor of domestic Italian cheeses, occupied the building from the 1970s until 2012.
The historic nomination concludes the Winnebago Cheese Factory "represents the evolution of dairying at the local level as one of the last intact and extant historic resources associated with Fond du Lac’s cheese industry."
Benson said the nomination will be reviewed at a future meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Once reviewed and approved for nomination by the state, it will then be forwarded to the National Park Service.
The primary benefit of a State/National Register designation is the ability to access historic tax credits that help developers/property owners undertake the necessary work required to preserve the historic character of these buildings.
Contact Sharon Roznik at 920-907-7936 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/reporterroz
This article originally appeared on Fond du Lac Reporter: Fond du Lac historic Winnebago Cheese Factory reflects industrial past