(OnFocus) Colby resident Matthew Oehmichen was one of several people who stepped forward to provide testimony in support of Assembly Bill 572, which proposes making Colby cheese the official state cheese of Wisconsin.
The bill was presented to the Committee on Agriculture on Wednesday morning at the State Capitol. It proposes adding Colby cheese to the Wisconsin Blue Book alongside other state symbols.
Oehmichen, a lifelong Colby resident, traveled to Madison through snowy road conditions to champion his hometown’s most famous invention.
“There’s only one cheese that’s original and native to Wisconsin,” he said.
Colby cheese was first developed and produced in Wisconsin in 1885 by Joseph Steinwand. Mild, soft, and moist, it’s widely available in stores. In 2017, Wisconsin’s state legislature named cheese the official state dairy product, and if Bill 572 passes, Colby cheese would be named the official cheese.
To Oehmichen, making Colby cheese state official would be a fitting way to recognize Wisconsin’s role as a top producer of cheese in the nation while also giving the state a unique symbol of its own.
“That would be serving as not only a symbol of something we do better than anybody else, but it’s also identifying our cultural history, our heritage, of what it means to be a Wisconsinite,” he said.
While some have viewed the bill as a frivolous item for lawmakers who have more important matters to address, Oehmichen believes the bill is an important step toward building state pride and for small communities to feel more connected to their state. He’s already heard from the great-great grandson of Steinwand, the inventor of Colby cheese, in support of the bill.
While the bill is particularly meaningful to Colby, its importance extends beyond the town alone.
“The whole state is littered with small communities where agriculture is the economic backbone,” he said. “These dairies — most of their products are being made into cheese. If there’s an opportunity for the state to say our official state cheese is a Wisconsin native cheese, it makes so much sense and would be a home run for everybody.”
Oehmichen also has a personal connection to the production of Colby cheese. His father, Larry Oehmichen, used to haul milk from his small 40-50 cow dairy farm to the factory that produced Colby cheese.
Later, years after the factory had ceased operations, Larry campaigned for it to be protected as a historic building. However, the factory was demolished and now only its concrete foundation remains, a remnant of an indelible part of Colby’s history.
Oehmichen’s testimony can be viewed below: