Dorothy Demeter was born into the cheese world. After all, her family ran the Illinois-based Kolb-Lena Cheese Company. Born in 1932, Dorothy tended chickens on the farm as a child; she’d visit the plant and watch her father design cheese cutters, until eventually she joined him on his rounds. When Dorothy, an only child, grew up, it made sense to pursue the family business—which meant forging a new path for herself in the dairy world.
In the late 1940s, Dorothy enrolled in the Dairy Industry program at Iowa State College, now known as Iowa State University. While a woman working in dairy science is unsurprising today, it wasn’t a typical academic pursuit for women in the early 1950s, Dorothy found herself the only woman in her class year.
By that time, women’s college enrollment had skyrocketed over several decades, though women were directed towards fields like teaching and nursing. Women might have gained hands-on learning as Dorothy had in her youth, but they hadn’t yet broken into traditional education in the dairy industry.
The family knew that knowledge was the key to progress, says Helen, Dorothy’s daughter: “Dorothy’s father knew the dynamic growth of their cheese varieties would require someone technically trained and skilled in product and laboratory technical knowledge.” In 1953, Dorothy graduated with a dairy industry degree, becoming the first woman to graduate from the Iowa State program.
Despite Dorothy’s background in cheese, the physicality of the program proved challenging. “She was expected to keep up with physical demands of the program, a program structured for men,” says Helen. Dorothy followed through. With her physical labor and technical education, she and her husband James, a classmate from Iowa State, pushed the family business forward.
That’s how it has carried on for decades, with the family passing on its cheesemaking traditions to new generations. Dorothy has two sons who continue to work in the cheese industry, one in Wisconsin and the other still in Illinois. Her son Jim, who holds a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker title, has two sons who are also licensed cheesemakers.
In late 2017, Savencia—where one of Dorothy’s sons continues to work today—worked with Dorothy’s family to launch Dorothy’s Cheese. Based in Lena, the Dorothy’s line is making cheeses inspired by Dorothy’s experience. They currently offer two cheeses, Comeback Cow and Keep Dreaming, both soft-ripened with one orange-tinged and the other ash-rubbed. Flower-shaped, the cheeses are inspired by springtime in the local Apple River Canyon.
According to Helen, the Dorothy’s cheeses are an homage to her mother’s work and the family’s cheesemaking history: “The quality, the flavor, and the crafted shape of the cheese are things that my mother likes and she finds the delicious flavor reminiscent of her own production years ago,” she says.
Dorothy passed away peacefully in her sleep on May 4, 2019.
Photo Courtesy of Dorothy’s Cheese.