If You're Going to Say "Cheese!" in Cheshire, Make Sure It's a Big Cheese!
Submitted for your continued wandering enjoyment through the Western Berkshires, the next curiosity or roadside attraction that you should make you sure you seek out is a lot easier to find than Balance Rock which I wrote about in my last post as it's right across from the small post office building on Church Street in Cheshire near the Appalachian Trail Message Center kiosk pictured above. Both the Appalachian Trail and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail pass right through rural Cheshire which was incorporated in 1793 and was the only Berkshire town which favored Thomas Jefferson over then-President and Massachusetts' native John Adams in the election of 1800. It was, in fact, the result of that election and what transpired afterward that inspired the building of the Cheshire Cheese Press that you'll easily find on the corners of Church Street and School Street just like distracted sidekick Paula did below!
Admittedly, it's not the prettiest monument you'll ever lay eyes on as let's face it, it's a giant cheese press and it's made from cast concrete but I still think it's pretty neat that the Sons of the American Revolution chose this creative way to honor the memory of Elder John Leland. Leland, a native of Grafton, Massachusetts who later became a Baptist preacher in Virginia before settling in Cheshire to preach the gospel, was a staunch abolitionist and a major advocate for religious freedom. A firm believer in the separation of church and state himself, Leland was a major supporter of candidate Thomas Jefferson who had authored "The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1786. Believing that Jefferson would push for religious freedom to be added to the Bill of Rights as President, Leland supported his candidacy and worked tirelessly to ensure that every vote from Cheshire would be cast for Thomas Jefferson and not John Adams.
When in June of 1801 their successful candidate who had beat out the incumbent invited the Elder Leland to formally come to Washington on January 1, 1802, the town searched for a way to show their support as well as pay a tribute to their new president. As most people in the town were engaged in the production of milk or cheese in one way or another and Cheshire, like its namesake town in England, was renowned for its quality dairy products and cheeses, they settled on the idea of sending a gift of a Cheshire cheese to the new president and to make it even more special, it would be made using curds from the best cows of every farmer in town. This was going to be a cheese the likes of Washington - or any place else in the country - had even seen!
Every farmer in the town picked out his best cow and brought its milk to the mill where a cider press had been converted to a giant cheese press on July 20, 1801. According to a Republican newspaper in Rhode Island that reported on the event, the cheese utilized the milk of 900 cows and was formed in a cider press that measured six feet in diameter. As the townspeople sang hymns and socialized, the cheese-making commenced and when all was said and done, the final product was a giant, round cheese measuring four feet, four and one-half inches in diameter, 15 inches thick and weighing in at 1,235 pounds. As it was the biggest wheel of cheese anyone had ever seen, it was dubbed as being a "mammoth" which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was the very first time in history that word was ever used as an adjective To make the mammoth cheese even more special, it bore the Jeffersonian motto "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."
Late in November of that year it was time to head to Washington so Elder Leland set out to transport the mammoth cheese on a sled drawn by six horses to the Hudson River where it was loaded onto a sloop and sailed down river to New York and onto Baltimore before making the last leg of the journey to Washington via wagon. The 500 mile trip, which took over a month to complete, became a major event from town to town as along the way Elder Leland would stop to preach the gospel at every church that would have him. Taking advantage of the curious crowds that would gather to see the giant Presidential cheese, Elder Leland would use the opportunity to preach the gospel to all who would listen to the "Mammoth" preacher that accompanied the cheese.
Leland and the big cheese finally arrived in Washington on December 29, 1801 and in a small ceremony in the East Wing at the President's House, the cheese was presented to President Jefferson who warmly welcomed Elder Leland to the White House on New Year's Day. During the presentation Leland stated that the curds had come from the “good Republican cows” of Cheshire in Jefferson’s honor; he further stated that the great cheese “was not made … with a view to gain (us) dignified titles or lucrative offices, but by personal labor of freeborn farmers, without a single slave to assist, for an elective president of the free people.”*
As Jefferson had set a policy to refuse gifts while in office, on January 4, 1802, he gave a $200 donation to Leland's congregation as a gesture of gratitude for the cheese before the Elder returned to Massachusetts but not before Leland delivered a sermon on Sunday, January 3, at a religious service that was held weekly in the Capitol during Jefferson’s administration at the U.S. House of Representatives. As for what happened to the big cheese after Leland left, though no precise date can be given for the cheese's ultimate disposal, it appears to have still been present at the President's House the following New Year's Day. It was reported to still be there as late as March of 1804 at which point it was described as "very far from being good" in the Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate, 1803-1807. Rumor has it that the last of the mammoth Cheshire cheese was served at a presidential reception in 1805 or, more likely, that it was dumped into the Potomac River at some unknown date.
Elder John Leland died in Cheshire on January 14, 1841 having delivered over 8,000 sermons during his lifetime and was buried locally. His tombstone reads, "Here lies the body of John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men." In 1940, the Sons of the American Revolution created a memorial in the form of a giant cheese press to honor Elder Leland and his dedication to religious freedom as well as commemorate the town's mammoth gift to President Jefferson.
ELDER JOHN LELAND
ELOQUENT PREACHER BELOVED PASTOR
FATHER OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
WITH JAMES MADISON CARRIED VIRGINIA
IN THE ADOPTION OF THE CONSTITUTION
OF THE UNITED STATES AND THE FIRST
AMENDMENT, DESPITE OPPOSITION OF EVERY
OTHER PULPIT IN MASSACHUSETTS
CARRIED EVERY VOTE IN CHESHIRE FOR THE
PRESIDENT THOMAS JEFFERSON
AND PRESENTED TO HIM ON JAN. 1, 1802 IN THE EAST ROOM
OF THE WHITE HOUSE IN THE PRESENCE OF FOREIGN
DIPLOMATS, SUPREME COURT JUDGES
AND THE CONGRESS
THE BIG CHESHIRE CHEESE
WEIGHING 1235 LBS.
THE SONS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
The story of Cheshire's mammoth cheese inspired many future events including the presentation of a similar cheese that was presented to President Andrew Jackson by his supporters in 1837. Jackson's supporters believed that "every honor which Jefferson had ever received should be paid him" so to that end dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, New York produced a giant wheel of cheddar that was four feet in diameter, two feet thick and weighed nearly 1400 pounds; he wrapped the cheese in a giant belt that bore patriotic inscriptions like, “The Union, it must be Preserved" and shipped it off to Washington DC.
After the 1400-pound fromage was presented to President Jackson, it sat in the White House lobby, aging while occasionally being nibbled on, for two years before Jackson scheduled a public reception near the end of his term to be held on Washington’s birthday. The aged cheddar was such a hit that the reception’s 10,000 guests polished off the wheel of cheese within two hours of the event starting! Friends of Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren, who as Vice President had received a 750-pound cheddar from Colonel Meacham at the same time President Jackson received his cheese, hoped to make mammoth cheeses an annual tradition but that idea ended abruptly after visitors ground curds into the East Room carpet. Ew. These events later became the inspiration for a recurring event on the White House television drama The West Wing entitled "Big Block of Cheese Day."
In addition to the second mammoth Presidential cheese, the Cheshire cheese inspired a critically acclaimed work of fiction in 2004, The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman which told the story about a small town cheesemaker convinced by her pastor to make a giant cheese for the President-elect. Additionally, the cheese also became the subject of a children's picture book A Big Cheese for the White House by Candace Fleming.
Listed on RoadsideAmerica.com, Your Online Guide to Offbeat Tourist Attractions, no doubt the monument has inspired a lot of people to stop and say "Cheese!" when getting their photo taken by the giant cheese press - just like I did!
Located on a rather nice corner of town with a bench or two in the vicinity, the Big Cheese Press may be a rather nice spot to take a break from the road and have a little picnic. Perhaps if you've visited one of the local wineries, you could even have a little wine with your cheese ... press!