In honor of the primary election being held today in America’s Dairyland, I offer a fromage-related item that recently came to my attention. (Sadly this post does not actually mention Wisconsin.) As many readers of the blog will know, I wrote an article a few years back on the Mammoth Cheese presented to Thomas Jefferson by the dairy farming Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802. (It was published as a chapter in the Beyond the Founders collection I co-edited with David Waldstreicher and Andrew W. Robertson, but seemingly read by far more people in the earlier version posted on my web site.) One of those readers, Loyola College student Erin Bacon, wrote last week with news that I had missed the biggest cheese of all, a 1400-pound specimen that is apparently common knowledge among residents of Oswego County, New York. I had mentioned a 100-pound cheese sent to Andrew Jackson by a Cheshire couple, but Ms. Bacon’s “local pride” impelled her to inform me of her hometown’s far more imposing tribute, a dairy product that was indeed as giant as Old Hickory’s self-regard. She sent a link to an old Oswego County history available online. Here is the account from 1895 Landmarks of Oswego County:
Dairying, and especially cheese-making, had become an important industry, particularly in the south part of the town [Sandy Creek, NY] in the Meacham neighborhood. In 1835 it made the locality famous. Col. Thomas S. Meacham was a man of enthusiastic temperament and fond of remarkable things, and in that year he conceived the idea of making a mammoth cheese as a gift for President Jackson. He had 150 cows, and for five days their milk was turned into curd and piled into an immense cheese-hoop and press constructed for the purpose. The cheese weighed half a ton, but was not large enough, so the colonel enlarged his hoop and correspondingly enlarged the cheese until it tipped the scales at 1,400 pounds. It was then started on its journey to Washington. Forty-eight gray horses drew the wagon on which it rested to Port Ontario, whence it was shipped November 15, 1835, the boat moving away amid the firing of cannon and the cheering of the people. Colonel Meacham accompanied it. It was conveyed by water by way of Oswego, Syracuse, Albany, and New York, and along the entire route its projector was given a series of ovations. Reaching Washington the huge cheese was formally presented to the President of the United States in the name of the “governor and people of the State of New York.” In return General Jackson presented Colonel Meacham with a dozen bottles of wine. The mammoth production was kept until February 22, 1836, when the President invited all the people in the capital to eat cheese. The scene is thus described by an eye-witness:
This is Washington’s birthday. The President, the departments, the Senate, and we, the people, have celebrated it by eating a big cheese! The President’s house was thrown open. The multitude swarmed in. The Senate of the United States adjourned. The representatives of the various departments turned out. Representatives in squadrons left the capitol – and all for the purpose of eating cheese! Mr. Van Buren was there to eat cheese. Mr. Webster was there to eat cheese. Mr. Woodbury, Colonel Benton, Mr. Dickerson, and the gallant Colonel Trowbridge were eating cheese. The court, the fashion, the beauty of Washington, were all eating cheese. Officers in Washington, foreign representatives in stars and garters, gay, joyous, dashing, and gorgeous women, in all the pride and panoply and pomp of wealth, were there eating cheese. It was cheese, cheese, cheese. Streams of cheese were going up in the avenue in everybody’s fists. Balls of cheese were in a hundred pockets. Every handkerchief smelt of cheese. The whole atmosphere for half a mile around was infected with cheese.
Colonel Meacham also sent a cheese to Vice President Van Buren, another to Gov. William L. Marcy of Albany, a third to the mayor of New York, and a fourth to the mayor of Rochester, each weighing 700 pounds. In return he received from the latter a huge barrel of flour containing ten ordinary barrels.
My Mammoth Cheese article made no pretensions to cataloging every single instance of presidential food tributes, but I will say that this Super-Mammoth Jacksonian Cheese makes one of my points fairly well. Thomas Jefferson’s cheese was a homely salute from a whole community, and it had a political message — New England Baptists’ support for Jefferson’s free-thinking, tolerant approach to religious freedom and many common Americans’ excitement at what promised to be a more democratic era. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents, still clinging to power in many places, sneered at the gesture and turned up their noses at the cheese. (It did smell.)
On the other hand, at least from the account above, Jackson’s cheese was something of an advertising stunt*, and only political in the sense of being the then-existing political establishment’s tribute to itself. A hard-charging local entrepreneur conceived the idea, and Whigs and Democrats and all of Washington society embraced it. Like most of the political festivities of the mid-19th century (as opposed to the earlier period), the Jacksonian Mammoth Cheese was bigger chiefly in the amount of money and ballyhoo that went into it.
*I wonder if the writer of the children’s book I complained about in the article, A Big Cheese for the White House, conflated the two cheeses. In that story, it was the original Mammoth Cheese that was an advertising stunt.