Cheese Factory

The Town of Cato was originally known as “Nettle Hill” and “Harrisville” but officially became Cato upon the arrival of the railroad line about 1870. One of the earliest settlers to the small rural community was John Killen, a Scottish immigrant. Killen was a Civil War veteran who came to Cato in1869 and opened up a General Store along the Neenah and Manitowoc Plank Road (what we know today as Highway 10). In Killen’s obituary from the Manitowoc Pilot on January 25, 1894 it said “His death will be a loss to Cato where he had established so many industries which contributed to the prosperity of the surrounding country. There lived no better citizen than John Killen."

A few years later opening the General Store and Post Office, Killen grew his properties to include the former Harris and Company sawmill and the nearby cheese factory. The Cato creamery and cheese factory is one of the few buildings that remain in this crossroads community following the Highway 10 restructuring that took place from 1992 to 1994.

As the county population grew and the demand for dairy products increased the number of cheese factories grew from 80 in 1893 to 106 in 1927. These family owned cheese factories were scattered throughout the county to be close to farms. Without refrigeration, the milk had to be transported in cans, daily, by horse drawn wagons to the cheese factories before it spoiled. Dairies began making door to door deliveries in cities with their milk wagons. Initially they would scoop out milk from a can into containers provided by each household. Later dairies began using their own glass milk bottles that would be used and returned.

Around 1893, Killen rented his properties to the Schultz family and Herman Schultz took over operation of the Cato Cheese Factory throughout the early 1900s.

Emil Sonnenburg was the cheesemaker at Cato from 1919 until his death in 1945. Born in Newton in 1892, Sonnenburg worked at cheese factories in Liberty and Francis Creek before making his way to Cato. At the Cato factory he produced an average of 300,000 pounds of cheese each year. He also won many awards for his high quality of cheese that brought him state and national recognition. Emil later sold the cheese factory to the Pauly and Pauly Cheese Company.

In August, 1920 the Cato Box Factory, located south of the Cato Elevator, was destroyed by a fire. The factory provided boxes for many businesses but its most popular market was local cheese factories. John Killen’s son Walter operated the factory, which employed 8 people. The fire was believed to start in the early morning hours when the fireman at the plant had started fires under the boilers. He left the factory for breakfast and the shavings located on the floors caught fire. Volunteers tried to put out the fire but it was spreading too quickly. It was feared that the fire would spread to other buildings but heavy rains assisted in putting out the fire. The factory was considered a total loss with between $800 and $1,200 in damage.

Records show that the Cato cheese factory operated until about 1967.