Tales from the Oral History Collections: Dorothy H. Thornton

October 19, 2021

By Sarah Stroman

Workers pose inside the Tillamook Creamery with cheese molds in the foreground. OHS Research Library, CN 25827.

Sometimes when interviews grow long, great stories are buried alive under mountains of technical information, political drama, and judicial minutiae. Sometimes they’re sweet, sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes they’re terrifying. But all of them are worth a few minutes of your time. From the depths of the Oregon Historical Society’s research library, Dear Oregon brings you a miniseries highlighting some of those hidden moments from our oral history collections.

Today we’re unearthing a story from Dorothy H. Thornton, a painter who was active in many Oregon art associations, including the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Arts Council. But before all that, she was Dorothy Marie Haberlach, the daughter of Carl Haberlach, one of the founders of the Tillamook Creamery Association. The following excerpt (that we lightly edited for clarity) is a tale Thornton told during a 1991 interview conducted by Nancy Hawver (SR 1076, Tape 2, Side 1). In the interview, Thornton talks about her father’s role in the Tillamook Creamery Association.

Robert Thornton and Dorothy Thornton, ca. 1990. OHS Research Library, SR1131_Image01
Dorothy Thornton stands next to her husband, Robert Thornton, in about 1990 at an event held at the Oregon Historical Society. OHS Research Library, SR1131_Image01.

Thornton: My father did run the Tillamook Cheese business with an iron hand because he was the manager for all of these factories. He was the central office that did all the buying and selling, not only the cheese, but also they had a farmers’ cooperative…and they would buy and sell hay [when] farmers needed extra, and they had a whey business. Some company in California, I’ve forgotten the name of it, would buy the whey that was left over from the cheese and spin it and dry and, I don’t know, it was used as a feed for something.… It was an important development to have another company come in and be part of this. And it was, in a way, it was, in my father’s mind, a way of saving, not for the environment, but saving something that had food value that would ordinarily just be dumped and that would be a big waste.…

Well, I had always been an officer in my [high school] class — secretary, president, or vice president, or something — in my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, and then in my senior year…my opponent was a girl whose father was a plumber, as I recall. She had a following, of course, and I had a following. There were some of the farmers who had resented the one-man rule of their lives for so long.…  So just before the election, on the blackboard in the assembly hall, there was writing on the wall saying “Don’t vote for Dorothy, because she’s Haberlach’s daughter.” [Laughs] I was elected anyway.… Most of the farmers thought…that my father was quite wonderful because he had made many wonderful business deals for them and had developed the market in California, which was the big market, of course, for the cheese.…

I remember that my father was very careful about spending the farmers’ money — and this is very silly, but it’s true. He had a little three-minute egg timer on his desk and three minutes was the limit for the cheap rate on the telephone. I can still see him setting this little thing up, and when it got down there so that the three minutes were almost over, he would close the conversation, no matter what was going on. He’d say: “Well, that’s it for now.” Those are funny little things that give you a clue to a person’s personality, I guess, and how they operate.…

Occasionally [I’d work in the office]. My mother wasn’t [working there] by then, but she had in the beginning. The two of them ran the office together. Of course, it’s a much bigger business now, but I don’t know whether they have several hundred employees. [Laughs] But they kept a big sheet with many lines across it for each cheese factory. And the little factories, say, they only had 24 farmers in it and each one had his number and he’d be on that line, and the records were kept of how much milk he delivered each day. And several times during the month, the quality of his milk, the butterfat would be tested. And if his milk was 3.4 [percent], you would multiply that by the number of pounds he had delivered that month, you see, and that way, you’ve got how much his output for his farm was for that month. And then whatever the gradual price of cheese was for that month, that would be multiplied, and that would be his income. Then deducted from all that would be the things that he had bought that month through the cooperative: the hay, milking machines, whatever else.

And in those days, of course, it was advertised as a full-cream cheese, which it was — a cheddar cheese. So, the richer your milk was, if your test was 3.5 [percent] with a Holstein, you had a big lot of milk. But if you had a smaller amount of milk and then you tested 5.8 [percent] for butterfat, you see, it would come out the same and you didn’t have to work so hard and you didn’t have to have so many cows. And so, the thing was to have the highest butterfat that you could have and still have a fairly good size — so that then, the Jersey cow was the most popular, because it had the richest milk. Then next were the Guernseys, and down at the bottom of the list were the Holsteins.

But now if you drive over in that territory, you see nothing but black and white Holsteins because the point now is they want the quantity of the milk. The butterfat is not that important because it’s just a different feeling about how rich people want [their] cheese, and they have standardized on something that is probably not as a rich as it was in the beginning, but still makes a perfectly good — probably the same cheese. I think it’s always been the same. But then, you see, then they would sell…the extra butterfat [as] ice cream and all the things now that they have.

And that Tillamook Cheese Factory now is so viewed, and it’s the third largest tourist attraction in Oregon, which is a surprise. It comes after — I always thought that Crater Lake probably was in there, but the first tourist attraction is Multnomah Falls, and the second one is the Portland Zoo, and the third one is the Tillamook Cheese Factory. They have hundreds of thousands of people who come every year and they go in. They have all kinds of things for sale. They sell everything from ice cream to frozen yogurt things to — well, they have a little restaurant, and they have all kinds of t-shirts and sweatshirts and dolls and books. Everything you can think of, and people are just in there buying like crazy.

More of Dorothy Thornton’s interview can be found online on OHS Digital Collections.

Copyright for this interview is held by the Oregon Historical Society. Use is allowed according to the following statement: Creative Commons — BY-NC-SA.

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