In an era when big brands mass-produce butter around the clock, Eugene “Gene” Kruckeberg stuck with the old-fashioned approach. At the Hope Creamery in tiny Hope, Minn., Kruckeberg churned out one small batch of rich, beloved butter at a time, tweaking the process, then scooping the butter out by hand for packaging, and even making deliveries.
The head butter maker for one of the last independently owned creameries in the state died July 25. He was 78.
“Without Gene, Hope Creamery wouldn’t be open,” said Hope Creamery’s owner, Victor Mrotz. “He was paramount in our decision to buy the creamery and paramount in our ability to continue making butter.”
Kruckeberg was born Feb. 12, 1939, in Owatonna, Minn. and grew up on a farm west of Bixby. He came of age at a time when nearly every little town in Steele County had its own creamery.
In 1958, Kruckeberg began his career at the Bixby Creamery. He joined the Hope Creamery in 1964, where he quickly earned the titles of manager and “Hope Butter Maker.”
On May 1, 1965, he married Lorene Stroup and the couple made their home in Hope in the “butter maker house” down the street from the creamery. For the next 53 years, Kruckeberg commuted by bicycle to work nearly every day.
The creamery changed hands over time, but Kruckeberg was a constant. In 2001, Mrotz and his wife bought Hope Creamery. The business had been struggling and Kruckeberg was considering retirement, but Mrotz pleaded with him to stay — just long enough for Mrotz to learn the butter-making process.
“I told Gene the only way I could buy the creamery is if he worked with me for awhile,” Mrotz said. “Making our butter takes an experience level that you just can’t hire, buy or teach.”
Even after Kruckeberg trained Mrotz and another butter maker in the ways of Hope Butter, he continued to make butter. Every Wednesday, he’d ride his bike to the creamery and begin the labor-intensive process of churning, cutting, wrapping and boxing butter, all by hand.
“He was an extremely dedicated man who liked the routines of life,” said Mrotz. “He was a guy, who, every day at 5 a.m., would be at the same spot.”
Even on the Wednesday before he died, Kruckeberg was at the creamery, making butter.
“He was a historian to the creamery. He kept large scrapbooks filled with news clippings and letters from customers who loved his butter,” said daughter Jill Hanson. “That made him feel like he was contributing something special.”
Mrotz said he has Kruckeberg to thank for Hope Butter maintaining its consistency throughout the years. After Mrotz purchased the creamery, he said he remembers telling Kruckeberg that they should make some changes to the machinery. Kruckeberg was silent, but before he walked away, Mrotz heard him say, “I wonder if that will change how the butter tastes.”
Kruckeberg’s comment made Mrotz stop and think: “Gene was a very quiet guy, but confident, and when he said something you’d want to listen,” he said. ”I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t that be real stupid to buy this whole creamery that has this great butter that everyone talks about, and then I change the equipment and it doesn’t taste like Hope Butter anymore?’ ”
Thanks to Kruckeberg’s commitment to an age-old process, Hope Butter has the same distinct, tangy flavor it had in the 1920s, making it a top choice for Twin Cities chefs. In 2013, chef Lenny Russo told the Star Tribune, “There is absolutely no comparison between the regular stuff and the high-fat stuff.”
Kruckeberg is preceded in death by his wife and parents. He is survived by his children, Jill Hanson of Danbury, Wis., and Kent Kruckeberg of Kasson, Minn.; siblings, Glenn Kruckeberg of Claremont, Minn.; Patricia Hoffmann of Owatonna, Minn.; Marilyn Thomas of Kasson, Minn.; and Nancy Dean of Owatonna, and nine grandchildren. Services have been held.