Cheese runs deep in the veins of Pinconning. Informally nicknamed the CheeseTown and formally designated the Cheese Capital of Michigan, the area is known for its love and commitment to cheese. The community celebrates its rich, cheese history with the annual CheeseTown Festival and Races, taking place over Father’s Day weekend, June 14-15.
Pinconning began as a lumber town in the late 1800’s. When that ended, dairy farming grew in the area and cheese became a popular byproduct. With five cheese factories running production at its highest point, the city became recognized for its cheese production.
Travelers regularly made the stop in Pinconning on their way through the area, especially during hunting season. When I-75 was constructed in the1960’s, it pulled some traffic away from CheeseTown. But many families still go out of their way to make the visit.
“If you go to Mackinac Island, you go to a fudge shop. If you come to Pinconning, you go to a cheese store.” said Craig Barnt, treasurer for the Pinconning Linwood Area Chamber of Commerce.
Wilson’s Cheese Shoppe is the original cheese store in Pinconning and the oldest cheese store in Michigan. Founded by Inez Wilson, alongside her husband, Lawrence, the Shoppe was known for its Pinconning Cheese, a recipe created by Wilson’s father, Dan Horn.
Through the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Inez Wilson promoted her father's signature product, Pinconning Cheese, and the town through radio coverage, road signs, and local celebrity endorsements. She erected the landmark giant Wilson mouse mascots near her store. She also was the driving force for the State of Michigan to designate the City of Pinconning as the “Cheese Capital of Michigan."
Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, ownership of Wilson’s has changed hands several times over the years but remains a family-owned business. Ryan Kleinhans is the 1st Vice President of the Pinconning Linwood Area Chamber of Commerce and works as the store manager at Wilson’s, operating the store along with his wife and father-in-law since 2014.
“I saw an opportunity when I came out of college,” said Kleinhans, talking about his decision to run the Shoppe. “It’s a great traditional spot and a good way to keep your traditions alive. We keep it familiar, but we’re always bringing in new stuff, too.”
Wilson’s has been getting its Pinconning Cheese from the same factory for 30 years, but the cheese is no longer made locally. As factories consolidated with larger companies, the hometown brand of cheese was left in favor of cheeses that are less expensive to produce. Kleinhans hopes to open a factory in the area again, but he describes it as a lofty goal.
“As someone who’s lived here my whole life, I want to see the area grow. I could have gone off somewhere after college and had a career somewhere else. But I want to be close to home,” said Kleinhans.
Kleinhans and Barnt are preparing for the CheeseTown Festival and Races, an event special to Pinconning. The festival began in the 1930’s and has gone through various transitions through the years, before celebrating the city’s connection with cheese in the 1950’s.
The CheeseTown Festival is an opportunity to draw tourists into the city and give local businesses a chance to show Pinconning’s signature product. With events centered around Doc Letchfield Park, activities include carnivals, vendors and live music throughout the weekend. The event begins on June 14 with the CheeseTown Cruise. Cars will start at the Saganing Eagles Landing Casino and end at the park where they will be on display. A macaroni and cheese dinner will be held at the community building later that evening. Among many other activities planned on June 15, a parade will run throughout the city and a kickball tournament will be held.
Anticipated events this year include polka bands playing all day June 15 and the first annual Sports Card and Collectibles Show, featuring Michigan sports stars Denny McClain and Braylon Edwards. Activities conclude June 15 with a firework show.
The main activity of the festival is the CheeseTown Challenge Races, which holds its 36th annual run this year. Runners come from all over Michigan to compete in the race, participating in either a 2-mile or 5-mile run. An additional race is held for children as well.
This year’s running will mark the beginning of the Chamber's involvement with the race. The races are a known activity during the festival but were organized separately. When the longtime organizer of the races, Marty Schultz, announced last year that he was stepping away from the event, Barnt was the loudest voice for the Chamber to take over the races.
“We were talking at a meeting and Craig said that we have to take over this race, because it is a big part of the festival.” said Kleinhans, “When we made a commitment to this race, we also committed to this festival and continuing to make it better.”
The festival has grown over the years, becoming an event that the whole community gets involved in. Future plans for the CheeseTown Festival are to host more activities over the weekend and bring more tourists to the Cheese Capital.
The CheeseTown Festival and Races is held June 14th-15th, in Doc Letchfield Park, located at 200 N. Mable (M-13). For more information on the event, please visit the Festival’s website by clicking here.