Monroe Cheese: A Delectable Memory

Cheese Skipper, or BlowflyThe following is from a story written for the Monroe, Maine town archives describing the Monroe Cheese Factory, which operated for at least 50 years in the center of Monroe, near the falls, until 1936. It includes a description of a very particular product — Skipper Cheese — that they specialized in “before the days of food laws.”

You may remember the “Good Old Days” when you could walk into any grocery store around [Maine] and order a slab of Monroe cheese.

Though the age of automation has brought to humanity untold comfort and pleasure, the days of horses and hard hand work had their compensations. Monroe cheese was one of them.

Like the nine mills that once flanked Monroe Stream, the cheese factory was of an era that saw Monroe become a prosperous center of activity. It was the age when people worked from dawn to dusk, wood was sawed by hand, and a farmer milked by hand and drove the milk by horse team to market.

Marshall Rand depended upon the farmers’ delivery of milk for his cheese. His son Earl worked at times with his father but old Mr. Rand “did the work of two or three men by himself.”

Mr. Rand had learned the process from Charles Johnson, and Earl Rand remembers that there were at least two men there before Johnson, a Mr. Colson, and a Mr. Taylor.

Earl Rand, who lives today beside the weathered building that saw its final production of cheese in about 1936, is the last to remember the process from making the once nationally famous cheese.

Roughly following the preliminary weigh-in each morning the whole milk was run into a steam vat and the temperature was kept at 70 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Curd formed on top and was eliminated. Constant stirring with wooden rakes was necessary, with the temperature raised to 110 degrees by steam. Salting and pressing followed. Butter fat was not over 3.7 percent for the full-fat cheese.

There were two cutters, two-feet long and one-foot wide. One cutter, with eight knives, went lengthwise of the vat, cubing the cheese.

After the cheese was salted and pressed, the blocks were turned onto a table to dry, having to be turned often.

They were sealed by being dropped into a paraffin tank heated to some 400 degrees. Every day Rand put out 28 cheeses weighing 25 pounds each. Individual taste dictated the aging period.

“For a mild cheese we would age it for less time, maybe a month or so. For a stronger cheese, from six months to a year,” Rand said. “We never sent out a cheese that was aged less than two weeks.”

For variety, some cheese had sage added. And there there was a special type of cheese.

“Before the days of food laws,” Rand related, ” we sold a large amount of what we called skipper cheese. After the food laws were passed which banned this cheese, we had to take back a couple of blocks of it. We had it out back, and I was going to bury it when I found the time. A man from New York, who happened to come into the factory that day asked me, ‘I don’t suppose you have any of that skipper cheese?'”

“When I told him that I did have some but wasn’t allowed to sell it any more, he wanted to see it.”

At this point it might be pertinent to describe skipper cheese. The protective wax coating on a block of cheese was cut in places, and the cheese was set by an open window. Blow flies would collect and lay their eggs in the cheese. Then maggots emerged and spread throughout the block. This process took about two months. Obviously, the longer the cheese sat in this condition, the more ‘lively’ it became.

The blocks to which Mr. Rand was to bury were about a year old. The customer in question asked for a knife, and when the seething delicacy was cut he proceeded to eat some.

“He must have eaten a quarter of a pound of it,” Rand said. “Then he asked if there was any law that said we couldn’t give it to him. I said ‘not that I knew of’ and he took the whole block.”

Earl Rand made the last cheeses that would be produced in the old Factory. “I made two five-pound cheese blocks,” he recalled. “One was plain, and the other was sage. We set them out in the shed and it was a whole year before we touched a knife to them. You never tasted such good cheese.”

Why did the factory close, leaving the building to crumble through the years of inactivity and neglect?

Stringent laws regarding the handling of milk figured into the situation, stifling the small farmer. One either had to invest heavily for better barn conditions, expensive equipment, and milk houses, or one had to do as many did — give up. Today most of the big herds which once added to the prosperity of Monroe are gone. And as the way of the ploggin’, struggling farmer has disappeared, so, too, has the precise, ever toiling, patient processor of Monroe cheese.

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