There can’t be many cheesemakers who rent their facilities from the state, whose works are housed on the grounds of a state historical site, and who re-create a recipe first prepared by the father of a US president. Jesse Werner, of Plymouth Artisan Cheese, is willing to bet there’s only one: him.
“I think it’s probably the most unique public-private arrangement that exists in the United States—with respect to cheesemaking facilities,” says Werner, who in 2009 assumed stewardship of the historic cheese factory.
Thanks in part to Werner’s vision and ingenuity, visitors to the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site today can experience a literal taste of history. The tiny, remote hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, has been preserved just as it was in 1923, when “Silent Cal” took the oath of office in the sitting room of the family homestead. The 30th president was born here and is buried here, and it’s not hard for a visitor to imagine life as it unfolded here in the early 20th century. The community church, one-room schoolhouse, and general store all remain as they were, as if suspended in time.
And just up the hill from the Coolidge homestead stands the cheese factory built by Calvin Coolidge’s father, John Coolidge, in 1890. The cow’s milk cheese Werner is making there today is based on John Coolidge’s recipe and is virtually identical to the “Plymouth Cheese” of the late 19th century: a raw-milk cheese that somewhat resembles cheddar. In addition to the sharp, full- bodied Original Plymouth, Werner offers several variations, some flavored, some smoked, some aged.
John Coolidge, a dairy farmer, created Plymouth Cheese as a means of turning extra milk into a product with a longer shelf life. The cheese had a reputation that reached to Boston and beyond. But in 1934 a Depression-era milk shortage forced the factory to close.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and to a different John Coolidge, this one the president’s son. Determined to put Plymouth Cheese back on the map, he updated the shuttered factory, and cheesemaking became once more part of the Coolidge Historic Site. In 1998, at age 92, John Coolidge sold the factory to the State of Vermont with the express stipulation that the facility would continue to be used for cheesemaking. “He never made any money [on the deal],” said John Dumville, historic site operations chief at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. Thus, Vermont found itself in the unusual position of needing to find a cheesemaker willing to take on the job.
In 2009, after a false start or two, the state went through a formal process of soliciting proposals for the cheesemaking business, and Werner’s was chosen. It was risky for Werner, who graduated from Brandeis Uni- versity in 2002 with a degree in sociology and later earned an MBA in Europe and a certificate in cheesemaking from the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.
“Dealing with cheese, an aged product, is very tough,” says Werner, 32. “You have to have enough cash flow until you can sell those cheeses a year down the road.” The factory required new equipment and various other updates; the state made some improvements when it took over, but most of the expenses fell (and still fall) to Werner. “We pay for everything: utilities, gas, electric, phone. It’s a private business, and we carry our own weight,” he says.
Not that he’s complaining. Werner calls the arrangement a “win-win for history buffs and cheese connoisseurs.” Visitors come for the history, but stay—or return—for the cheese.
Unusual as it is, the cheese factory at the Coolidge homestead is more than just a curiosity. “It adds a special vibrancy to the site and makes the experience come alive for visitors,” says Werner. “Not only do you get to see history, you get to taste and touch and smell it. It’s almost like the cheese is an historical exhibit.”Photo Credit: Images courtesy of Plymouth Artisan Cheese