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‘Cheese War’: Sisters tell story of dairy dispute that divided Tillamook County

Marilyn Milne and Linda Kirk have written a journalistic memoir about the 1960s battle that followed changes in the local dairy industry.

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Sisters Linda Kirk (left) and Marilyn Milne wrote “Cheese War“ to add to the historic record and try to figure out what the fight was about.
Sisters Linda Kirk (left) and Marilyn Milne wrote “Cheese War” to add to the historic record and try to figure out just what the fight was about.

Few places say bucolic like Tillamook County. But not so long ago, this place of rivers and forest, mountains and coast was not exactly the calm countryside people know today. Rather, the county known for its famous cheese was at war – over the very cheddar that brought it fame.

Now the story of that war has been shared in Cheese War: Conflict and Courage in Tillamook County, Oregon, co-authored by Marilyn Milne and Linda Kirk and published last month by Oregon State University Press. It’s a story about small farms and big cooperatives, about profit margins and financial ruin, about a way of life that couldn’t last. The authors are sisters and childhood witnesses to the 1960s battle that raged over a difference of philosophy about governance (strong board vs. strong manager), compounded by lies, financial skullduggery, lawsuits won and lost, and insults. The war played out during six years of difficult economic times for dairy farmers. The cheese war severed friendships, divided families, and created ugliness that lingers in memories today.

One such memory sparked the idea for the book roughly eight years ago. Kirk, a retired teacher, was working as the children’s specialist at a small library when a guest speaker visited. Kirk’s colleague learned the speaker had grown up in Tillamook and asked Kirk is she had known her. Well, yes, Kirk said, she had known the girl, but then recalled ruefully, “They were on the other side.” 

Hearing the phrase suddenly pop from her mouth all these years later stopped Kirk on the spot. It also got her thinking. What was that fight all about anyway? Before long, Kirk told Milne, “I think we should write a book about the cheese war.” To which Milne replied, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” And if that wasn’t clear enough, “I’m not writing a book.”

Obviously, Kirk, two years Milne’s senior, can be pretty persuasive. They started small, Kirk persuading Milne to write a short piece on an incident they remembered. That went well, so Milne took a stab at another. The sisters don’t live close to each other – Milne is a public relations consultant in the Willamette Valley; Kirk lives on a farm in Southwestern Oregon – so they kept the conversation going long distance, shaping the book as they spoke. 

“I remember meeting with Marilyn at a truck stop in Halsey, trying to make my case that we really should write a book,” Kirk said. “I remember using the phrase, ‘Add to the historic record.’”

But if the book were to be one for the history shelves, it would not be one to add pain to the past.

“We recognized that the book we would write would not be objective,” Kirk said. “We couldn’t attempt it and we didn’t want to attempt it. But in being subjective, we wanted to guard against being unkind or strident. We felt that wasn’t the right tone for our book.”

It took the pair nearly a decade of researching – visiting old neighbors, scouring the Oregon State Archives and the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, reading microfilm from local newspapers, and talking with family and strangers. They were lucky enough to have some original news clippings, the ledgers of dairy association meeting minutes dating back to the 1950s, as well as an interview Milne had done in the ‘90s with her parents about the cheese war. At the time, she wasn’t even thinking of a book but a unique Christmas gift for her siblings.

“When we called guys in Tillamook who had been young men at the time and could be resources for us, they were quietly happy,” Milne said.  “It was like, ‘What, you want to write about that? Sure, you can talk to me.’ They were pleased and shared their stories, and throughout the long writing process we kept going back for interviews. They always were there for us.”

During their research, they learned about numerous alarming incidents, even a threat to their father, a farmer and president of the Tillamook Cheese and Dairy Association board, as well as one to dairy farmer Fred Becker, also an association member. Becker offered a $500 reward to anyone who supplied information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who mailed a threatening letter to him. The letter read in part:

I have become convinced that you are out to break the ass’n. You are to quit and desist from meddling in all affairs pertaining to the Tillamook County Creamery Assn. … if you don’t I shall burn your farm buildings and if that don’t stop you I shall get my scoped sighted deer rifle and pick you off. I can usually hit a deer at 400 yards on the first shot … After you comes Lucas, Leuthold & Milne in that order.

In another case, the sisters learned someone reportedly dynamited a garage belonging to a member of the Tillamook County Creamery Association (aka, the other side).

“I thought, what?” Milne recalled. “I always thought of the people on our side as being so noble.” When the OSU press editor questioned the event, the pair did more research, but could find nothing. Finally, they located the garage owner’s daughter who assured them the dynamiting never happened.

“The surprise for me was when we interviewed people in Tillamook who were now older and had been more directly involved,” Kirk said. “As we got into conversations, the interviewee would turn to me and say, ‘What was that fight all about?’”

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The 181-page book is part memoir, part journalism – pretty much just as the siblings planned.

“We wanted to write this for history,” Milne said. “We wanted our book to be available to future generations, current folks who live in Tillamook and remember the cheese war, kids writing papers. When we read from Cheese War in Tillamook, the response was warm and exhilarating. Someone in attendance described it as a gathering of the sons and daughters of the cheese war.” 

Milne and Kirk will be reading from the book around Oregon this summer, with the first stop scheduled for 7 p.m. July 21 at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton.

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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