Writing to my grandfather on December 22, 1899, James Leggat, a food importer and wholesaler in Glasgow, Scotland, worded it with admirable tact.
“We are keeping 20 or so of your cheeses,” said Leggat, “as we think they will be even better in January or February than now — though your cheeses are not so new or green as some we have got lately from Ashdown, Port Sydney, Watt, and some other factories, all of which we intend to keep till February or March.”
In short, the cheese factories of Parry Sound-Muskoka had unloaded green, or unripe, Cheddar on the international market.
A less diplomatic individual than Leggat might have likened it to dumping unaged Scotch whisky on our shores, or have suggested sending our product to the moon, said in folklore to be nothing but a giant wheel of green cheese.
Those 75-pound cheeses that Leggat held back to ripen, after marketing the bulk of a consignment of 100, were produced in Dunchurch. The Dunchurch Cheese Association, consisting of farmers living within five or six miles of the village, was formed in 1897 with my grandfather Frank N. Macfie appointed as secretary-treasurer.
The co-operative imported a purebred Ayrshire bull to upgrade the local breed of cattle, built a cheese factory on the shore of Whitestone Lake in the village, and hired a cheese maker from southern Ontario to get them started.
The Dunchurch enterprise was but one player in a broad undertaking to boost the economic prospects of hundreds of small farms scattered across the southern flank of the Precambrian Shield.
It was Ontario’s Free Grant & Homesteads Act that lured the settlers into the bush in the first place, and now, with the pine timber industry, a major consumer of meat, oats, and hay, in decline, new markets were needed. Every farmer kept cattle, and while it was unprofitable to chase them hundreds of miles south to sell as beef, why not switch to dairy cattle and export cheese?
At the same time as the Dunchurch cheese factory was built, similar plants appeared in McKellar, Parry Sound, Carling Township, Ashdown Corners (near Rosseau) and in Muskoka at Ullswater (Watt Township) and Port Sydney.
At first, the venture seemed to be working. In 1899, perhaps the Dunchurch Association’s best year, 180,000 pounds of milk flowed into its vats from as far as Fairholme in the south and Ahmic Harbour and Maple Island to the north. This was converted into nearly nine tons of cheese, earning $900 in foreign currency in addition to local sales.
However, the turn of the century saw an abrupt turnaround. When push came to shove, we couldn’t compete with facilities located where dairy herds were larger and cheese markets more readily accessed.
On top of that, when milk contracts were being drawn up no one thought to ask the cows of Parry Sound–Muskoka if they felt up to meeting the quotas being negotiated. When our stony pastures turned brown in late summer the cows, too, “dried up,” and twice-daily milkings dwindled to a trickle.
Unable to provide promised quantities of milk, farmers begged relief from the terms of their contracts. For example, in a letter to the Dunchurch association Thomas Butler, of Maple Island, pleaded, “As four of my cows have not come in [produced calves] and are dry, I have only two cows in, a small heifer and an old cow that holds up her milk after the first three weeks. The result is almost nil.”
Faced with demanding creditors, at one point the directors of the Dunchurch association sent a letter, couched in threatening lawyerly language but of course signed by my grandfather, warning “backsliders” that they faced legal action if they failed to come up with promised milk. One incensed recipient, Ollie Simpson, of Fairholme, fired back a letter declaring that he would turn the letter over to his own lawyer “unless you take back what you said.” I’m sure that my neighbourly grandfather was quick to do so.
When, at the top of this column, I quoted the importer comparing Dunchurch cheese favourably over that from other factories, I was just sticking up for the home side. In fact, James Leggat went on to say that he looked forward in the coming year to receiving “twice or if possible three times more” cheeses from all “six factories in your neighbourhood.”
But blood is as easily squeezed from stone as is milk from a hungry cow. The last of the Parry Sound–Muskoka plants ceased production not far into the 20th century.
How nice if even one of them had hung on until today. My mouth waters at the thought of a sensually crumbly wedge sliced from a wheel of Old Parry Sound Cheddar.
So fleeting was the local cheese-making era that photographs of it are hard to find. Kelly Collard of the Rosseau Historical Society provided the one shown here, of a wagonload of cheese departing the Ashdown Corners factory and probably bound for the railway station at Swords or a Lake Rosseau steamer dock.