Articles

Ingersoll’s running out of cheese

The world craved it, poets praised it, it spurred near mutiny and was the awesome toast of London. But soon the famous cheese of Ingersoll, Ont., may he only a mouth-watering memory. Gourmets fret because

DUNCAN McLEOD April 28 1956
Articles

Ingersoll’s running out of cheese

The world craved it, poets praised it, it spurred near mutiny and was the awesome toast of London. But soon the famous cheese of Ingersoll, Ont., may he only a mouth-watering memory. Gourmets fret because

DUNCAN McLEOD April 28 1956

Ingersoll’s running out of cheese

The world craved it, poets praised it, it spurred near mutiny and was the awesome toast of London. But soon the famous cheese of Ingersoll, Ont., may he only a mouth-watering memory. Gourmets fret because

DUNCAN McLEOD

LAST JANUARY 19 when the Ingersoll, Ont., Kiwanians finished their weekly dinner at the Legion Hall, the president rapped loudly for order. But one Kiwanian wouldn’t be stilled. “Thief!” he cried, pointing an accusing finger at a tablemate.

The president pointed his gavel at the offender. “Frank Littell,” he cried, “you are hereby fined ten cents for holding up the proceedings.”

“I protest!” shouted Littell. “Frank Witty just took a piece of cheese off my plate—the last on the table!”

Lloyd Brown jumped to his defense. “That’s a heinous crime!” he cried. “I make a motion the fine be withdrawn on the grounds that it was a provocation not capable of being silently withstood.”

“Very well,” laughed the president, and introduced the guest speaker, who at the conclusion of his speech was proudly presented with a five-pound aged Ingersoll cheese - the greatest gift that Ingersoll can bestow.

GONE: A flaking sign on town’s outskirts is indicative of an old industry’s decline.

For cheese has been venerated in Ingersoll for almost a century. For years it was “Cheesetown” to most of Canada—the home of the famous nutty-flavored, aged Ingersoll Cheddar and birthplace of the cheese industry in Canada. Ingersoll has produced cheeses of every shape and size—and poets write odes to them. In 1866 the town outdid itself by producing a cheese weighing nearly four tons, the largest ever made up to that time. A local laureate promptly published a poem extolling it. These ebullient actions of Cheesetowners were understandable, for cheese saved the town from extinction and brought it wealth and fame.

Today, alas, Ingersoll’s glory as Cheesetown is rapidly drawing to a close, for the central part of southern Ontario is in the midst of a revolutionary economic change. Before World War II cheese was an essential product in a rural economy without nearby markets for large quantities of fresh milk. But since 1945 cities such as London, Hamilton and Toronto have boomed, in some cases nearly doubled their populations and proportionately increased their demand for fresh milk. Tank trucks from these cities now daily visit the Ingersoll area and haul away thousands of gallons of fresh milk that formerly became cheese. But in some ways Ingersoll still lives up to its name of Cheesetown, for its citizens are forever absentmindedly sampling and munching cheese, which is still being made in a handful of factories in the area that haven’t bowed to changing times.

Cheesetowners seldom miss an opportunity

to present an old Ingersoll cheese to visiting celebrities. “I always expect a good cheese when I come to Ingersoll,” Prime Minister St. Laurent once remarked. When the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) and the Duke of Edinburgh were touring Canada in 1951 and the awful news was broken that they would not stop in Ingersoll, Tommy Lee, an enterprising newspaper publisher, managed to smuggle a cheese on the train at Toronto.

This preoccupation with cheese has a curious effect on the people. To the casual visitor Ingersoll seems to be a thriving little industrial community of seven thousand, lying on the slopes of a saucer-shaped valley twenty miles east of London, Ont., and neatly cut in two by the Thames River, a shallow, polluted, fishless stream which in summer dries to a muddy trickle. Running along the Thames is the Canadian National Railway which serves several industrial plants that make paper boxes and automobile parts and employ nearly the entire labor force of the community.

But for all its hustle, Ingersoll has t he soul of a farming hamlet. The only hotel in town is the St. Charles, built in 1868, whose linoleum floors and highceilinged rooms are warmed in winter hv tiny individual gas stoves. For the last few years Ingersoll businessmen, convinced that a new hotel is needed in the go-ahead community, have perennially threatened to build one. But invariably their resolutions have faltered because they know a new hotel in Ingersoll wouldn’t pay unless it had a beverage room, and they are afraid to press for a vote to legalize the sale of lieer for fear of antagonizing the farmers, whom they believe are predominantly dry.

Their respect for the farmers is understandable, for without them — and cheese - there would be no Ingersoll.

The town was founded in 1806 by Thomas Ingersoll, an American immigrant attracted to Canada by free land. The settlement grew rapidly, but by 1830 was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The magnificent forests surrounding it had been ruthlessly destroyed by lumbermen; the farmers had so intensively cultivated the cleared land for wheat that it was worn out.

In a desperate attempt to rebuild I heir soil, farmers bought large numbers of cows and used their manure for fertilizer. Since there was no nearby market for large quantities of fresh milk, housewives began to make cheese in their kitchens, selling the excess not required for home use in Ingersoll and keeping the sums thus earned as pin money. The husbands humored their wives’ little industry and manfully got on with the main job at hand rebuilding their soil.

But by 1850 stiff competition from I he western prairies was pressing Ingersoll’s wheat growers. The farmers now discovered their only cash income was from their wives, who were coining money by selling all the cheese they could make. From Ingersoll the cheese was shipped to England where, as a cheap and nutritious food, it found a ready market. To the farmers their next step was obvious. They let their wheat fields revert to pasture, and took lessons from their womenfolk in cheese making. Soon every farm was a home cheese factory, shipping thousands of pounds of cheese a year into I ngersoll.

Scores of other communities in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes whose economy had been disrupted by cheap prairie wheat were doing the same thing, but I ngersoll had two initial advantages it had thousands of cows and the women had discovered by long trial and error how to make excellent cheese.

Then in 1864 Harvey Farrington, a local farmer, had the inspiration that laid the foundation stone for Ingersoll’s future fame. He formed the first co-

operative cheese factory in Canada. Under this system a group of neighboring farmers agreed to bring their milk to a central depot where one of their members skilled in cheese making was entrusted with this specialized task. This system spread rapidly, and ended the home production of cheese. Soon there were forty-four co-operative cheese factories in a thirty-mile radius of Ingersoll. each producing from one hundred to three hundred tons of cheese a year.

Their new-found wealth and fame brought exuberance and pride to In-

gersoll’s farmers and inspired a local businessman who became internationally known as the Cheese Poet. He was James McIntyre, a slender Scotsman with bushy black hair and brooding eyes, who arrived in Ingersoll around 1866, opened a furniture store and, following the custom in those days, was also an undertaker. McIntyre wandered the picturesque rolling hillsides of Oxford County and saw in the grazing herds a pastoral beauty symbolizing the glory of his adopted community. He began to compose such poems as:

A few years since our Oxford farms Were nearly robbed of all their charms.

O'er cropped the weary land grew poor

And nearly barren as a moor.

But now their owners live at ease Rejoicing in their crop of cheese.

McIntyre's opportunity for lyricism rose to new heights that same year when Ingersoll’s farmers decided it was time they showed the world what they could do in making cheese. They had been irked by the farmers of Oswego County, N.Y., who made a six-hundred-pound cheese and presented it to President Andrew Johnson with booming cannon, flag-waving and boastful speeches. Secretly Ingersoll went to work. For four days five hundred cows poured their milk into a cheese factory. Eight days later there emerged the biggest cheese the world had seen up to that time—sixteen feet in circumference, two feet ten inches in height and weighing seven thousand pounds.

The farmers decided to ship the mammoth cheese to the New York State Fair, in Saratoga, just to show those Americans—and incidentally as a sales promotion stunt for Ingersoll cheese. The day of its departure was declared an official holiday by the town. Mounted on a sturdy wagon, the cheese was drawn through the streets by six dappled-grey horses and followed by proud bearded farmers and town officials in high silk hats. A crowd assembled at the railway station and McIntyre read his latest inspirations in its honor, including one proclaiming the glories of a district that could produce the mammoth cheese:

In barren district you may meet

Small fertile spot doth grow fine wheat

There you may find the choicest fruits

And great, round, smooth and solid roots.

But in conditions such as these

You cannot make a mammoth cheese

Which will weigh eight thousand pounds

But where large fertile farms abound.

Encouraged by the people’s cheers, McIntyre read another poem titled Ode to the Mammoth Cheese, in which he eulogized its mass:

Wer’t thou suspended from a balloon

You’d cast a shade even at noon

Folks would think it was the moon

About to fall and crush them soon.

At the Saratoga Fair the cheese was such a success that it was decided it should cross the Atlantic to be put on exhibit in London in 1869. But it had taken on a distinctly high aroma and at Liverpool the mayor flatly refused to permit it to be landed. The captain appealed to the mayor to reconsider, since half his crew had deserted and the other half were near a state of mutiny. He even claimed that sharks had never left the wake of the ship since they sighted the boat. But the mayor refused and departed hastily, a handkerchief pressed to his nose.

The captain then demanded of the Ingersoll cheese exporter in charge of the Canadian mammoth, a gentleman named Caswell, that the cheese be dumped over the side. But Caswell said the captain should either discharge his contract to deliver the cheese to England, or return it to Canada. The captain blanched at the latter thought

and agreed to a scheme proposed by Caswell, to smuggle the cheese through Customs.

Accordingly, the ship immediately sailed to Chatham, on the estuary of the Thames River. Disembarking, the captain and Caswell drove to London. The captain gave the custom manifest to Caswell to have the cheese cleared through Customs, while he sought out the London port authorities to register. He advised them that he had missed the tide at Chatham and wished to take advantage of the next one. The authorities agreed to accept the ship’s entry, as it was a common practice when a vessel missed the tide to transact the business that way so no delay would be caused. Caswell meanwhile had received custom clearance for seven thousand pounds of Canadian cheese. The only thing he had neglected to mention was that it was all in one piece.

As soon as the ship docked in London its crane hurriedly hoisted the Canadian mammoth onto the pier, and the captain then turned immediately about in heartfelt relief for the pure breezes of the open sea.

Was it a fair contest?

But the London exhibition welcomed the mammoth with open arms. Cheese lovers from all over England came to gaze in amazement and mouthwatering hunger. Finally, the secretary of the fair suggested it would be more to the point if they ate it, instead of just admiring its size. Caswell agreed, and on the day it was cut up gourmets gathered from all over the country clamored for pieces and exclaimed in delight that its wanderings had given it an exquisite flavor.

For years after this epic stunt Ingersoll cheese commanded premium prices in England. In Canada, Ingersoll Cream Cheese—a mixture of aged Cheddar, butter and cream—enjoyed a monopoly. However, other areas in Canada were beginning to seriously challenge Ingersoll’s pre-eminence. In 1892 the town of Perth, midway between Kingston and Ottawa, made an eleven-ton cheese which measured ten feet across and six feet in height. Ingersoll claimed that any comparisons made between the Perth mammoth and its own weren’t entirely fair since twelve towns had co-operated in the Perth effort. Fair or not, the Perth cheese is believed still to hold the world’s record.

After 1900 Ingersoll slowly began to feel the pinch of competition. Other areas in Canada—notably in eastern Ontario—were producing Cheddar and cream cheese of excellent quality. Still, for twenty years more, Ingersoll remained the most important cheeseproducing centre in the country. Then, beginning in 1920, a new factor began to disrupt the old cheese-making economy. The gasoline truck made it possible for the first time to gather milk from farms twenty to thirty miles in the country and deliver it quickly to nearby cities which required fresh milk in increasing quantities. Following World War II tank trucks reached farther and farther into the country in search of new supplies, and eventually reached Ingersoll. With milk being drained away to the cities, cheese production in Ingersoll fell from a wartime high in 1942 of eight and a half million pounds to two and a half million in 1955 -out of eighty million for all Canada.

For Ingersoll’s farmers this growing demand for fresh milk is no hardship, since they are making more money, but for cheese makers, once the social elite of the area, it is a tragedy. Most of the independent cheese makers, like Bill Boyes, have been forced to sell their businesses and take jobs for which they have little liking or training. Boyes, a slim, balding, middle-aged man who for many years owned and operated a family cheese factory near Ingersoll, now works as a car salesman with Ingersoll Motors.

“Cheese makers around Ingersoll,” Boyes says sadly, “are somewhat like the village blacksmith—we’re just displaced persons, a rather pitiful reminder of a vanished era.”

A few food companies dealing in cheese, unable to obtain a supply from independent producers, have bought factories near Ingersoll and placed a cheese maker in charge. One of these is at Thamesford, ten miles west of Ingersoll, owned by the Old Cherry Hill Cheese packing plant in Brantford. The cheese maker is Max Frehner, a thin, young Swiss immigrant, who learned his trade before coming to this country. On entering cheese competition in Canada for the first time last year, he was awarded the two top prizes for his Ingersoll Cheddar the British Empire Award and the Grand Champion prize.

Frehner lias no trade secrets. “Those days are gone,” he says. He does, however, watch over his cheese making as carefully as any housewife watches over a cake. Cheese making is an extremely complex operation, varying greatly with each of the eighteen distinct types of cheese. In general, however, all follow a common pattern.

Milk is dumped into long, stainlesssteel vats, and heated. Bacteria, known as “culture,” are added, causing fermentation. To thicken the mixture, rennet, a liquid extract made from the fourth stomach of calves, is used. When the mixture is a jellylike mass it is chopped into small pieces to permit separation of the liquid known as “whey” from the cheese, known as “curds.” This process is known as “Cheddaring.” The whey is drained off, leaving the curds, or green cheese, which are then pressed into a solid mass for curing.

Canadians show an overwhelming preference for Cheddar over any other type of cheese: on a per-capita basis we eat six and one half pounds of cheese a year, five and a half pounds of which is Cheddar, the rest of true or imitation foreign make. This latter group is largely made up of: Couda and Edam

sweet, semisoft and rubbery cheeses; Swiss sweet and with the familiar round holes caused by gas fermentation; Romano and Parmesan—sharp and salty, usually grated and used to flavor Italian dishes; blue cheese—soft, salty and creamy-flavored; Limburger —semisoft and tangy; and Oka—the world-famous rubbery, strong-flavored cheese made by the monks of La Trappe, Que.

Each of these types of cheeses has its own devotees. But generally these cheeses are delicacies that pall with constant eating, while Cheddar can be eaten day in and day out.

Cheddar, made from whole, unpasteurized fresh milk, is made up in ninety-pound circular blocks and aged in waxed cheesecloth and plyboard containers in cool, well-ventilated rooms or cellars. For the first three months the cheeses must be turned by hand upside down at least once every two weeks, so the juices will drain slowly back and forth to cause fermentation. In three months all fermentation has ceased, but to obtain the tanginess beloved by gourmets, the cheeses must be aged up to fifteen months more. All the famous cheese-producing areas of the world religiously claim that their curing rooms have some peculiar characteristic that gives their cheese its distinctive aroma and taste. For instance, the monks of Conques, France, credit the Roquefort caves for the blue-veined mold in their Roquefort cheese. In Ingersoll the curing cellars, lined in stone and ceilinged with old wooden beams, are jokingly referred to as “the famous Ingersoll caves.”

Nearly half the Cheddar produced in Canada, however, is not aged. It is ground to a paste, mixed with butter or cream, and with the addition of some aged Cheddar and secret ingredients becomes processed cheese. This has a mild mellow flavor and modest price which appeals to the shopping housewife.

Aged Canadian Cheddar is sold under trade names such as Old Oxford Cheddar (an Ingersoll Cheddar), Black Diamond, Old Cherry Hill and Stilton The name given, in Canada, to a twelve-pound block of Cheddar). Some Cheddars are wine-cured. At the little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Albert Hall makes a tangy, wine-cured Cheddar known as West End Cheese. Hall uses Oxford Cheddar exclusively and buys and cures only those cheeses made from June to September, which he considers superior since the cows have fed on grass rather than ensilage. When Hall believes a cheese is sufficiently cured, he inserts a steel testing tube into it, pulls out a plug of cheese and pours Niagara Peninsula wine into the hole. Most wine-cured cheese is treated with port, but Hall uses sherry. Each week he pours more sherry into the hole until the cheese is saturated.

Every supermarket and nearly every grocery shop today carries aged Cheddar, but the true gourmet prefers to purchase his cheese in such an establishment as The Cheese Shoppe, in Montreal, a successor to Ye Olde English Cheese Shoppe. Here, in a quiet subdued atmosphere reminiscent of Bond Street, the gourmet fussily inspects cheese ranging in price from eighty cents to a dollar and twenty cents a pound, under the solicitous eye of the proprietor, Robert MaeConnachie, a Scot who preserves an OldWorld dignity in deference to his cheese by dressing in a long, immaculately white apron, bow tie and green tartan waistcoat.

Ingersoll until recently had a parallel to The Cheese Shoppe, in the SlawsonRiley Cheese Co.—better known as Riley’s Cheese House — the oldest cheese-buying, processing, ageing and exporting firm in town. The owner, Charlie Riley, would select the finest cheeses and store them carefully. Once aged, these cheeses became famous as Riley’s Pet Cheeses, and made him easily the most sought-after friend in Ingersoll. But in 1952 the decreasing supply of cheeses forced Riley to sell his plant to Marshalls Company, a Toronto food concern. Today Riley, a hearty jovial man in his late seventies, still buys cheeses for the new owners, but the once-prospering retail end of

the business has been shut down.

Most people in Ingersoll now buy their aged Cheddar from the Oxford Dairy, which regularly delivers twopound boxes with its milk. Sam Wadsworth, the proprietor, believes his is the only dairy in Canada that does so.

Wadsworth, a dapper businessman with a fondness for bow ties, was a milkman in Toronto before he settled in Ingersoll in 1945. He wasn’t there long before he discovered that Americans had a passionate fondness for old Ingersoll Cheddar. He installed a cheese counter in his dairy, and American businessmen and tourists began to drop in regularly to buy four or five pounds of cheese at a time. Realizing that here was an untapped source of business, Wadsworth hung out a sign stating that “World Famous Old Canadian Cheddar” was for sale within. So many Americans stopped that he had to build a parking lot for a hundred cars. Now he is planning to enlarge his parking lot and add more facilities to his dairy for cutting and wrapping cheese. His only worry is whether the cheese will hold out.

No more cheese—what then?

Although few people in Ingersoll today are dependent on cheese for their livelihood, most are aghast at the possibility that there may actually come a time when there is no more Ingersoll Cheddar.

One of these is Earl “Jit” Humphrey, parts manager at Ingersoll Motors. Humphrey, middle-aged and heavy-set, boasts that he can sit down and eat a regular meal and then eat enough cheese to fill an ordinary man.

The sight of a cheese factory invariably triggers a cheese hunger in Humphrey, who is extremely fond of curds, or “green” cheese. “A few years ago,” he recalls, “my wife, my sister, her husband and I were driving from Montreal to Ottawa. We passed a cheese factory, and a few miles farther on I said, ‘Gee, I’d love to have some curds.’ The others said they were thinking the same thing.

“So we kept driving and looking, but we didn’t see another cheese factory. We reached Ottawa— but we kept right on going, looking for a factory. Thirty miles outside Ottawa I said I just couldn’t stand it any longer and was going to ask the next gas-station attendant where we could find a cheese factory. So we pulled up at this gas station and I asked the attendant. He said there was one about ten miles down the third dirt road on our right. So we finally got there and I asked the cheese maker if we could buy some curds. He said he wouldn’t sell us any, but would give us some. So I said, ‘well maybe we want more than some people want.’ He looked at us kinda funny, and said, ‘Okay.’

“So we got a big basin out of the car and he began to scoop some into it. After every scoop he would ask, ‘Is that enough?’ But I’d answer, ‘Nope, put some more in.’ He really began to get puzzled. I guess he thought we were going to take all his curds. But finally we had enough and drove off, all of us happily eating curds. The next morning there were still a lot left, so I took the basin on my lap and ate curds until we hit Ingersoll.”

To Humphrey the trial of being deprived of curds is terrible enough, but the mere thought of no more Ingersoll cheese poses a dark and gloomy future for Cheesetowners. Humphrey expresses the thought of numerous gourmets in Cheesetown when he cries in anguish, “What will happen if there’s no more cheese made in Ingersoll? Half the people in this town will starve to death!” iv