Historical lore dates Tillamook County’s first cheese to around 1856, when William W. Raymond separated curds and whey in a large vat. The growing season was too short, so settlers resorted to cows and surplus milk.
Over the past century, Tillamook became synonymous with the 100-year-old Tillamook Creamery, whose medium cheddar was awarded the best at the World Champion Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin this March. That quality no doubt contributes to the little-known fact that Tillamook Cheese Factory is the second most visited site in the state of Oregon. More than one million people each year peer through the observation deck windows to see one of the world’s best cheeses being sliced.
Leisha Mizee-Riggert’s forebears emigrated from other cheese-producing nations of Holland and Switzerland and began to raise dairy cows four generations ago in Tillamook. Their family dairy farm, as with 110 others in the area, is a member of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which dairy farmers established in 1909 to ensure the highest quality of cheese. In recent years, the private company has posted more than $300 million in annual sales.
“I was 8 or 9 before I had steady chores on the farm,” says Mizee-Riggert, now 29 and a workforce management and training expert in Tillamook. “Then I moved into 4-H and started showing cows.” In 2000, the protégé was named the Dairy Princess of Oregon. Under that sash, Mizee-Riggert devoted nearly a year of her life to educating school kids and legislators about cheese and dairy farm families.
In a town whose population has hovered near 4,500 over the past decade, Tillamook was too small for a young woman whose travels led to big-city aspirations. Mizee-Riggert took a job as a nanny in New York later that year and parlayed that into a job in the city’s booming financial sector. Shortly thereafter, she had a change of heart and moved back to Tillamook and its pastoral beauty.
Beauty can get thorny at times. The Trask and Wilson rivers run west from the Coast Range toward the Pacific Ocean and skirt the southern and northern edges of town in an august showing. As verdant as the valley is at the confluence of the rivers, Tillamook celebrates its 100-year flood nearly every year.
That flooding cost the county more than $60 million between 1996-2000, according to estimates from the Tillamook County’s community development department. Partly due to economic factors behind new big box stores, Mizee-Riggert says, the downtown area today has many vacancies and its spirit lies with an older generation.
“When I was in junior high, we could walk around downtown and there were candy stores and multiple clothing stores, and there was a real sense of a downtown,” Mizee-Riggert recalls. “Big box stores came in and the you could see the way of the small businessman going by the wayside. I look at it today and wonder why we can’t get back to the times when everyone came downtown. We need an involved younger generation.”
Despite its challenges, the once Oregon dairy princess considers Tillamook a labor of love. “At 14, I swore that I would never move back to this town. Now there’s no way I would move anywhere else.”
Population growth: 8.2% (2000-09)
Median income Tillamook County: $34,645-$41,529 (2008)
Median home price Tillamook County: $200,000 (Q4 2009)
What to Do
Tour the Tillamook Cheese Factory
Have lunch at the Blue Heron French Cheese Company
Revisit WWII at the 7-acre blimp hangar of Tillamook Air Museum
Drive the Three Capes Scenic Route west to Cape Meares on the point of Tillamook Bay
Hit the Tillamook Farmers’ Market downtown on Saturdays through October
Eat Tillamook Bay Oysters