There are many ways to show support for your country’s troops, but would you ever think of making the world’s largest cheese to raise money for hungry soldiers? In the early summer of 1864, a farming family by the name of Steele did just that: They produced a 3,800 pound wheel of cheese to raise money for the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.
The Steele family of Pescadero was at that time one of the most well-known dairy operations in California. They began in Petaluma and wound up at Rancho Punta del Año Nuevo, or “cow heaven” according to Isaac Steele. The ranch was owned by Loren Coburn, a very wealthy and notoriously greedy man who owned most of the land in Pescadero. Despite his bad reputation, a lease was arranged and the Steeles moved 1,100 cattle to the ranch in 1861. The family earned $17,000 (almost half a million today!) on cheese alone within the first year at the ranch.
A Unique Show of Support for the Union
When the Civil War was declared in April of 1861, Isaac’s brother Frederick joined the army and became a general. With a close family member fighting in the war, the Steele family wanted to contribute something special to the United States Sanitary Commission (the Civil War equivalent of the Red Cross). What better way for dairy farmers to show support for their troops than to produce for them the world’s largest cheese?
In the early summer of 1864, with this ambitious goal in mind, the Steeles enlisted the help of their neighbors to milk 1500 cows, make curds, and press the curds together to produce a 3,800 pound wheel of cheese. The cheese, worth $800 then ($11,900 today), was presented to the Sanitary Commission by Reverend Dr. Bellows. It was met with wonder and amazement and became the central attraction of that year’s Industrial Fair of the Mechanics Institute of San Francisco.
Held in San Francisco’s Union Square, the Fair’s pavilion featured a 108-foot-high dome. The seven foot wide by two foot deep cheese was displayed at the center, hidden inside a Chinese pagoda ringed with potted flowers and called the “floral temple.” To see the massive cheese, people paid 25 cents to one of several wounded soldiers who had fought bravely for the Union. The money raised all went to the National Sanitary Fund and after a month on display, the cheese wheel had raised $1500 (equal to $22,400 today).
Mark Twain Reports on the Monster Cheese
Samuel Clemens reported on the great cheese in the Daily Morning Call on September 10, 1864:
“It is the contribution of two whole hearted brothers, and it is worth twenty-five cents to look upon such a monument of kindly Christian charity. After that cheese has gone the rounds of the States and collected a quarter of a million for the Sanitary Fund, it will be cut up in New York and sold by the slice [to benefit the Sanitary Fund].”
Samuel Clemens wrote several pieces about the monster cheese but he failed to fact check his work and the Call’s editor-in-chief, George Barnes, let him go in October saying,
“You’re out of your element, Clemens. The position requires persistence and a certain attention to detail. I believe you are unsuited to it. Besides, you’re obviously capable of greater things in literature.”
And indeed he was. Samuel Clemens moved on from reporting on the world’s largest cheese to writing some of America’s greatest literature under his pen name, Mark Twain.
President Lincoln Gets a Bite of the Big Cheese
The cheese wheel’s final destination was meant to be New York so that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac could enjoy the delicious creation. Sadly, only samples of the cheese made the trip. It was decided that by the end of the journey, planned to be made by steamship, the cheese would no longer be edible and would go to waste. So instead, most of the cheese remained in San Francisco and was sold for 50 cents a pound to anyone interested in trying the world’s largest cheese and supporting the Sanitary Fund. Some of the cheese did make it all the way to New York (a special sample box was sent to Reverend Dr. Bellows) and to the White House so that President Lincoln could try a piece. In the end, the massive cheese raised $2,820 and was enjoyed at Thanksgiving dinner by many San Franciscans that year.
Special thanks to Randall Brown for writing the article that was the main source for this piece.
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- Pathways to the Past: Adventures in Santa Cruz County History. History Journal Number Six. The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center. “California’s Big Cheese.” Randall Brown. 2009.
- United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Giving. Susan Waide, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Manuscripts and Archives Division. December 22, 2010. New York Public Library Website. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/12/16/ussc-processing-project-giving
- The Inflation Calculator. Morgan Friedman. http://www.westegg.com/inflation/