Hope Creamery has Ellendale ties

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 11, 2007

By Katie Johnson, staff writer

ELLENDALE &8212; In 2001, Victor Mrotz, an Ellendale man who had returned to the area from the Twin Cities in 1997 to farm corn with his father, decided to purchase the Hope Creamery from the owners, who were selling off the building in Hope and others across the street.

Hope Creamery started as many did in those days &8212; a small operation out in the country.

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&8220;When the railroad came through, they moved it into town,&8221; Mrotz said.

Built around 1920, Midway Co-op was a two-story, stout brick structure in Hope, which was even smaller than it is now. With similar businesses in the neighboring communities like Blooming Prairie and Ellendale, creameries were the livelihood of rural Steele County in the early 20th century.

About 10 minutes south of Owatonna and a stone&8217;s throw from Interstate 35 in Steele County, Hope is a tiny town nestled among corn fields and farmsteads, where a gas station advertises &8220;birdseed,&8221; &8220;candy,&8221; &8220;cold pop,&8221; &8220;softening salt,&8221; &8220;chips,&8221; and &8220;pet food&8221; on its pump island.

Steele County was once unofficially called the &8220;Dairy Capital of the World.&8221; At one time, Mrotz said, the rural Southern Minnesota county had more creameries per capita than any other place on Earth.

&8220;We are the last creamery in the county that still operates,&8221; he said.

Hope Butter is made in Hope and things like company mail goes there, but the company maintains offices in downtown Ellendale.

The second story of the Hope Creamery in Hope features an expansive hall and stage, where sunlight floods the dusty, worn hardwood floors, where Hope residents would have dances and co-op meetings. Santa Claus and vaudeville acts would make appearances at the co-op, which also had shower facilities and a ladies&8217; powder room. They served as a way for the co-ops to &8220;give back&8221; to the community.

&8220;These types of halls &8212; public venues &8212; were pretty common,&8221; Mrotz said.

Hope Creamery itself, however, is confined to a single large room, where vintage steel vats heat and cool cream into old-fashioned blocks of butter.

The vat method is the original process of pasteurizing butter, as opposed to the most popular method today, high temperature short time, which uses metal plates.

Cream used in the process comes from Hastings Co-op in Hastings and a co-op in Sauk Centre that provides organic cream.

The cream arrives and is pumped into a 600-gallon vat pasteurizer or 800-gallon upright model, both at least 50 years old, Mrotz said.

It is heated to 170 degrees for 30 minutes, then cooled to 40 degrees using well water and ice water.

The cooled cream sits overnight before being pumped into a churn &8212; also about 50 years old &8212; to break down the curd in what Mrotz compares to a &8220;cement mixer.&8221;

During the butter-making process, which begins at 5 a.m. once or twice a week, employees stop the churn occasionally and check to see what size the curds are. When they are the proper size, the buttermilk is drained, and sent to Associated Milk Producers Inc. in New Ulm.

Next, milk solids are washed off the curd and the water is then drained into a septic field.

&8220;Milk solids interfere with the flavor of the butter,&8221; Mrotz said.

During each butter-making day, where about 5,000 pounds of salted and unsalted conventional and organic butter is made, the churn door is opened, and chunks of butter are heaped onto the printing machine, which wraps each lump into a one-pound block. Commercial businesses, like restaurants, can order 40-pound blocks.

Hope Creamery is its own distributor, shipping as far east as Rochester, Austin and Pine Island; south to northern Iowa; west to Mankato; and north to the Twin Cities, where it retails in Byerley&8217;s and Festival supermarkets. Hope butter can be found in 60 to 70 stores and is used in 40 to 50 restaurants.