If you were elected President of the United States of America, you’d probably be justified in thinking of yourself as ‘the big cheese’!
And a big cheese is exactly what America’s third President received after an enterprising town hit on a unique way of conveying its congratulations.
The town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, was named after the English county where some of its earliest settlers emigrated from. As well as the name they took with them a talent for dairy produce, specifically the crumbly white cheese typical of Cheshire.
In 1800 the still young USA held an election for its third president, a hard-fought contest between two of the nation’s ‘Founding Fathers’. On one side was John Adams, who had already served four years as the nation’s second President and before that was its first ever Vice-President under George Washington. On the other was Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who served as Vice-President under Adams and was now seeking the top job himself.
In those days, whole towns or districts tended to declare on the side of one candidate or the other, and Cheshire, Massachusetts, was staunchly on the side of Jefferson. In fact, it was notable for being the only township in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, which did not back Adams, the early favourite to win. When Jefferson emerged victorious, the people of Cheshire sought a special and memorable way to congratulate their man and since their town was famed for its cheese, the answer seemed obvious!
On July 20th, 1801, they set about making a mammoth Cheshire cheese as a gift for the new President. A purpose-built cheese press, big enough for the job, had already been made by modifying the biggest press at the town’s cider mill, and milk from every farm in and around the town was collected to make the curds for the giant round cheese.
Once pressed, it measured four feet in diameter, was 18 inches thick and weighed a whopping 1,235 pounds – more than 88 stones. It also bore Jefferson’s election motto – “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
The cheesy colossus was loaded onto a specially-hired sled pulled by six horses to transport it to the Hudson River, where it was manoeuvred onto a barge bound for New York. From there it was hoisted onto a sloop and sailed down America’s Eastern Seaboard to Baltimore, then loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon for the final leg of its journey to Washington DC. The whole journey was more than 500 miles and took three weeks, with crowds turning out at every stop on the way as news of the giant cheese preceded its arrival.
It was accompanied on its long journey by Cheshire’s Baptist pastor, Elder John Leland, who had urged the town to support Jefferson in the election and afterwards came up with the idea for the giant cheese. As the originator of the scheme, you could say it was ‘Pastor-ised’ cheese. Leland was adamant that it should be made only with milk from farms which supported Jefferson’s cause and by “the labour of Freeborn farmers, without the assistance of a single slave”, since he was deeply opposed to slavery.
It was nicely matured when it was finally presented to an astonished President Jefferson on January 1st, 1802, a full 10 months after his election. After tasting a piece, he praised it as “extraordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts (cheesemaking) are practiced by the citizens of Cheshire!”. He then cut a large piece to send back to the town so the cheesemakers could sample the product of their extraordinary endeavour, and also made a $200 donation to Pastor Leland’s church as a gesture of gratitude.
The cheese remained at the White House for more than two years and was featured in a public dinner for an Independence Day celebration in 1803, which considerably reduced its size. Today, a stone monument to the town’s giant cheese and the press in which it was made stands in Cheshire, Massachusetts, where you can still buy some very tasty cheese.