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Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth Cheese
by Gail Skroback Hennessey
Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the only big cheese in the White House during his first year as president. In 1802, the townspeople of Cheshire,Massachusetts, decided to give the new Republican president a gift from their town. They sent him a piece of cheese. Called, the “Mammoth Cheese” gives you a hint, that this cheese present wasn’t your unusual piece of cheese. It was a really big chunk of cheese, 1235 pounds, to be exact.
A religious leader of the town, John Leland,urged each member of his church to help make a special gift of cheese for Thomas Jefferson. Leland told his church congregation that the special cheese would be their thank you to the newly elected President for his efforts to defend religious freedom. He asked that every member that owned a cow “bring every quart of milk given on a given day, or all the curd it would make”. The only cows that he didn’t wish to be used in the making of the gift were “federal cows”( cows owned by members of the opposing political party). Leland said such cows would only be able to supply milk that would give the cheese a bad flavor!
People brought their wooden pails of milk and curd to the town’s local cider press. The press would be big enough to make the gigantic piece of cheese. In total, more than 900 cows contributed to the cause. When done several months later, the cheese was four feet wide and seventeen inches thick!
The next problem was how to get the whopper of cheese from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. It was decided that a sleigh would be used to bring the cheese to the President. Pulled by six horses, it took three weeks to carry the cheese the 500 mile journey. The cargo caused lots of interest as it traveled through different towns. Curious towns people came out to see the unusual cheese that would be a gift for the president. The cheese’s odor continued to ripen, over the weeks of its travels. One person in Baltimore, MD, took a sniff and said of the smell, “ It was strong enough to walk the remaining distance to Washington, DC!”
On New Year’s Day, 1802, the cheese made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. When it arrived, Leland personally presented the cheese to President Jefferson, who stood in the doorway of the White House and accepted his cheese gift. He read the sign that had been attached to the cheese. It said, ” The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America.” Because President Jefferson had a policy not to accept “gifts”, he paid the minister $200 for the cheese.
Two years later, the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was still displayed at the White House and served to those brave enough to still munch on a piece of the famous cheese. Eventually, however, the chunks of moldy pieces that were left, were given a hoist into the Potomac River!
Interestingly, this wasn’t the last cheese gift given to a President. Andrew Jackson received a 1400 pound Cheddar cheese gift from a farmer in Oswego County , NY, in 1835. It would sit in the White House lobby for two years before Jackson decided to have an open house to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Reports say that it only took the guests two hours to gobble down the cheddar cheese! Martin Van Buren thought a mammoth cheese party might be a great annual event. That is, until visitors ground cheese curds into the East Room carpet! Still another Presidential cheese gift, a lot smaller in size, was given to President Calvin Coolidge, in 1928. He received a 147 pound swiss cheese made in the state of Wisconsin thanking him for making it more expensive to purchase Swiss cheese made in Switzerland. Coolidge supposedly kept the cheese for afternoon snacks for himself and the Secret Service.
The remains of the original Mammoth Cheese gift to President Jefferson may have ended up in the Potomac River but if you go to Cheshire, Massachusetts, you can still see it. Well, kind of. Roadside America says there is a cast concrete cheese press monument honoring the making of the famed cheese.