The Big Cheese

Hello everyone,  Winnie Griggs here. Happy Monday.

A while back I read a little historical footnote that in 1804 President Thomas Jefferson attended a public party at the Senate where an enormous loaf of bread, dubbed the “mammoth loaf” was part of the food offering.

If you know anything at all about me you know I couldn’t just let this intriguing bit of information go without digging into it further so of course I did some research. And oh boy, did I ever find out more than I bargained for – in fact in the process I came across an even more intriguing bit of trivia.

It seems that enormous loaf was baked to go with a mammoth wheel of cheese that President Jefferson had received as a gift two years earlier.  And for the record, I’m using the word mammoth deliberately, because that’s how these items were described at the time.  I found a notation that stated Americans of this period were enamored with the term due to their fascination with the then recent discovery of the skeleton of a giant woolly mammoth in the state of New York.

This massive wheel of cheese was the brain child of John Leland, the Elder of a Baptist  congregation made up of the staunchly Republican citizens of a farming community located in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. The goal was to recognize and commemorate Jefferson’s long-standing devotion to religious freedoms. Leland asked every member of his congregation who owned even one cow to bring all the milk and/or curd produced on a particular day to a local cider mill.

It was reported that the milk from about 900 cows went into the making of the cheese and that the cider press they used measured six feet in diameter.  The final product, once cured, measured more than 4 feet in diameter, 13 feet in circumference and 17 inches high. I read one report that said it weighed in at 1,235 pounds and another that reported 1325 pounds but in either case it was BIG. In fact it was so big it couldn’t be safely moved the entire distance on wheels. The logistics in and of themselves were interesting – it traveled by sleigh from the town to the Hudson River, from there by barge to New York City. Then it was moved to a sloop which carried it as far as Baltimore. The final leg of the trip to Washington D.C was accomplished via a wagon pulled by six horses. All in all, the approximate 500 mile trip took over three weeks to accomplish.

President Jefferson praised the people who had donated the extraordinary gift for the for their skill and generosity   Because he believed he should refuse gifts while in office, he paid Leland $200 for the cheese.

The cheese lasted for quite some time as it was gradually consumed at various White House functions over the next couple of years.  Finally, on March 26, 1804, the President attended the above-mentioned party designed to rally support for a naval war with the Barbary States. A Naval baker created a huge loaf of bread to accompany the remnants of the mammoth wheel of cheese as well as large quantities of roast beef and alcohol.  It’s assumed that the last of the cheese  was consumed during the event.  An alternate theory is that after this party, the remnants were disposed of in the Potomac River.

Is this bit of historical trivia something you already knew about?  And why do you think people are fascinated by things of an unusual size?  Is it perhaps the novelty of it all or is it something else entirely?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

22 thoughts on “The Big Cheese”

  1. What a wild story. Can you imagine eating the cheese for years, especially without modern refrigeration?

    I think people just love seeing normal things in an exaggerated size. Those giant wooden spoons and forks from the South Pacific adorning kitchens for decades in the 60s and 70s.

    There’s a sculpture garden museum in NJ with huge people and objects. Of course there are those roadside attractions along Rte 66 and other old US Routes. There’s a house near York, PA shaped like an old shoe–like Old Woman living in a shoe.

    The bigger the better, right?

    • LOL – I remember those giant forks and spoons (dating myself here). And I’ve seen photos of those roadside attractions but I’ve never actually seen one in person

  2. Wow what a story. I can’t imagine eating something that big fir 2 years. I’ve never heard of this story, but found it fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Three weeks for the cheese arrival, what a journey it took.

  3. Hi Winnie, always nice to connect in another venue. This IS fascinating. It would make the Guinness Book of Records, except I don’t think they had it back then.
    What would have made it even better would have been if someone had toasted the bread and cheese and made a giant vat of tomato soup. I’ll suggest it next time.
    Kathy Bailey
    Always thinking in New Hampshire

    • Hi Kathy, good to see you here. And actually, in a sort of copycat move, Thomas Meacham presented President Andrew Jackson with an even bigger 1,400 pound wheel of cheese which was made by the dairymen of Oswego County, New York. So the record, if it had been one, would not have stood.
      And LOL on the soup and sandwich idea.

  4. I love cheese but don’t think I would need that much cheese or could eat that much cheese. Like Kathy said they could make giant grill cheese sandwiches with it.

  5. Happy Monday to you also. This is an interesting story. That is funny about the word “mammoth” Still today when something like this happens, a word like this is spread far and wide and used in everything. This was a huge gesture of appreciation. And then of course there is the concept: Can it be done? Lets give it a try. And voila, look at that. Thanks for sharing this story.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    • You’re so right Lori, In fact I think it’s even more true today since info spreads so much faster now.
      And the idea of a challenge of this nature can be very motivating.

  6. On religious freedom, it’s interesting to note that our founders were avoiding forcing citizens to pay taxes towards a state sanctioned religion. Obviously they were thinking of the Church of England. The author of our constitution, James Madison, did not even want to allow chaplains in the military!! He didn’t want one cent going towards any type of government involvement in religion. It’s totally changed now because many religious organizations have tremendous income and they don’t want to pay taxes to support the government.

  7. I love hearing about all the interesting tidbits you and other authors find when researching your books. Like today, I look things up from the post and get lost in my own information search. I would like to have seen the “tub” they put all that milk into to separate the curds and whey before pressing it.
    Sadly interesting that religion and politics was involved even in making the cheese. Partisan nastiness intruded – “Leland also insisted that “no Federal cow” (a cow owned by a Federalist farmer) be allowed to offer any milk, “lest it should leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour.”[3] ” Cows are not political animals and I am sure there was no difference in the taste of their milk. It just shows how ridiculous politics can get.

    This was new information to me. I noticed they have a monument to the cider “cheese” press in Cheshire. As for why people seem fascinated with overly large items, in a way I think it is in a big part just to get attention. On our travels, we have seen many towns with oversized fishing poles, fish, chairs, cowboys, etc. It is their claim to fame, even if it is for the proverbial 15 minutes. Everyone wants to be special in some way and that is one way to do it.

    • Hi Patricia, I read that too, but I also read another account that reported that was said in jest since the whole town, with the exception of one individual, had voted for Jefferson. And it sounds as if you’ve seen some mighty interesting things in your travels!

  8. Hi, I had never heard of this story, thank you for sharing it with us. It is very interesting. I have always heard about the bigger things in Texas , but I had no idea other states had that also. 🙂 I think people are just very intriguing about things that are really way bigger than they should be, Kind of wild though. Have a Great week and stay safe.

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