The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a gift from the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, to President Thomas Jefferson in January 1802. The 1,234-pound cheese was created by combining the milk from every cow in the town (according to Dumas Malone's biography on President Thomas Jefferson, the cheese was made from the milk of 900 cows), and made in a makeshift cheese press to handle the cheese's size.
Making the Cheese
One pastor in Cheshire, Elder John Leland, believing that his efforts helped Jefferson win the Presidency, encouraged his townspeople to make a unique gesture to Jefferson. He urged each member of his congregation "who owned a cow to bring every quart of milk given on a given day, or all the curd it would make, to a great cider mill..." The Cheese itself was produced solely by the persons and labor of Freeborn farmers of Cheshire, Berkshire County. As stated in a letter for Reverend John Leland to President Thomas Jefferson, the Cheese was made "without the assistance of a single slave,".
The townspeople brought their milk and curd to the mill where a large hoop was placed on a cider press, resulting in a massive cheese press. The townspeople added their ingredients, sang a hymn over the press, and, after a time, the cheese was ready.
The final product weighed 1,234 pounds, was 4 feet wide, and 15 inches thick. Due to its size, it could not safely be transported on wheels, so the town hired a sleigh to bring it to a barge on the Hudson River for the start of its trip to Washington, D.C.. With Leland steering the sleigh, the three-week, 500-mile trip became an event from town to town as word spread about the gift.
Delivery to the White House
The cheese was eventually presented to Jefferson on January 1, 1802. Leland considered the cheese an act of "profound respect...to the popular ratification of his election." While the cheese did serve to praise Jefferson, the town also made a political statement in its letter to Jefferson, noting that "the cheese was procured by the personal labor of freeborn farmers with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave." Jefferson praised the act as "extraordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts...are practiced by [the citizens of Cheshire]." The President then cut a piece of the cheese to present to the town, and it was widely considered the greatest cheese presented at the White House. Jefferson, who opposed the gift giving custom on principle, gave a $200 donation (over 50% of the actual market price) to Leland's congregation as a gesture of gratitude.
The cheese would remain at the White House for over two years, having been featured in a public dinner for an Independence Day celebration in 1803, eventually being replaced by the "Mammoth Loaf," a large loaf of bread made by the United States Navy out of a barrel full of flour.
The story of the mammoth cheese inspired many future events. President Andrew Jackson's supporters commissioned a similar cheese for consumption in 1837, as his supporters believed that "every honor which Jefferson had ever received should be paid him." The reception was held on Washington's birthday, and was "crowded to excess" according to an article in the Farmer’s Cabinet of March 3, 1837. This event later became the inspiration for a recurring event on the White House television drama The West Wing, entitled "Big Block of Cheese Day." The cheese inspired a critically acclaimed work of fiction, The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman in 2004, which told the story about a small town cheesemaker convinced by her pastor to make a giant cheese for the President-elect. The cheese also became the subject of a children's picture book, A Big Cheese for the White House, by Candace Fleming (available for purchase here). Today a cast concrete cheese press stands in Cheshire. A plaque dedicated to Leland is affixed to it.