Twenty years ago we started gift boxing our as-of-yet-not-quite-famous sour cream coffeecake in traditional cheese crates made by Dufeck Manufacturing in Denmark, Wisconsin. What I didn’t know then was they were—and are—the last surviving cheese crate maker in the United States.
There used to be crate makers all over the country.
“When we started a hundred years ago, there were cheese makers on every corner and they all needed crates,” explained Paul Dufeck, the fourth generation of Dufecks to make the cheese crates. “Back then you could find a crate maker every thirty miles or so and they’d make crates for everyone,” Paul continued. “The crates were used for aging twenty-two pound rounds of cheddar cheese. The cheese would form into wheels in the crates and they makers would flip them, age them, and ship them when they were ready, all in the same crate.”
Aging in wooden crates may seem odd, but wood is great at protecting cheese. It allows the cheese to breathe, so its flavors can better develop. “There’s something special about the flavor of a cheese aged in wooden crate,” Paul continued. “There are still a few cheesemakers in Wisconsin that age cheddar in our crates—and one in North Carolina—but the practice is pretty rare nowadays.”
It takes at least six different people to make a Dufeck crate.
Three folks operate the veneer lathe which is like a large pencil sharpener, but instead of whittling a pencil to a point, it sheers off thin sheets of wood from large logs that are soft and malleable enough to be formed into different shapes. This veneer makes the sides of our round and oval crates. The fourth person makes the tops and bottoms of the crates from planed pieces of wood that fit together with tongue and groove (no glue or adhesives). Another person nails the crates together. Finally the tops of the crates are sanded by the last person who also screen-prints our logo on top. Once the crate is finished, it’s moved upstairs to dry for a couple days and then they’re shipped directly to us. We buy a few truckloads a year of different sized crates, any one of which we’re happy to use to store cats and sour cream coffeecake.
Dufeck’s crates are one of the things people love about our gifts—but that’s not all they’re good for.
We get pictures all the time of people repurposing them—as button boxes, as cat condominiums, as yarn crates. I used to think we were a little strange for repurposing a cheese crate to hold a coffeecake but then I realized everyone does—it turns out Dufeck has been doing the same thing for half a century.
In the middle of the 20th century the small cheesemakers closed or consolidated into larger companies and the larger cheesemaking factories started making huge blocks of cheese and shipping them to factories that would cut and cryovac the blocks and ship them in cardboard, not wood.
“You either diversified or you died,” Paul explained, “and that’s what we did. We make pallets and crates for large equipment and we recycle all our scrap into mulch and sawdust that we also sell, but we’re the only ones left that still make cheese crates.”