Historian's Corner

Charlene Cole
Sandy Creek/Lacona Historian
Historian's Corner
May 16, 2016

I know I have written a column in the past on Colonel Thomas Meacham and 'The Big Cheese' but was recently asked to do it again for the Oswego County Bicentennial book and thought it was worthy of repeating in this column.

Who was Colonel Thomas Standish Meacham? His parents were Issac and Lucy (Standish) Meacham. His brothers John and Simon were among the first pioneers to the wilderness that was to become the Town of Sandy Creek. The title 'Colonel' probably came from his drilling of troops on the village green. Colonel Meacham was elected as an assessor at the first town meeting for the Town of Sandy Creek in 1825 and later served as Associate Judge of Common Pleas for Oswego County from 1841-1845. Meacham is best known for the 'Big Cheese' that was sent to President Andrew Jackson in 1835.

Colonel Meacham's farm was on the Salt Road, about a mile from the Richland line in the Town of Sandy Creek. The buildings and dairy were considered the most pretentious and extensive in the township. The Meacham family was the most prosperous among the farmers of the Town of Sandy Creek, owning the largest number of horses (12), sheep (800), and cattle (120). They owned 350 acres of improved land and from it they raised 500 bushels of barley and 750 bushels of wheat. They produced 1600 pounds of wool.

Colonel Meacham had one of the largest farms in this section of the country, his dairy numbering 150 cows and he conceived the idea of making and enormous cheese and presenting it to President Jackson as a means of advertising a local product. His plans were set in motion and by September of that year the preparations began. He hired a carpenter to build a special structure, containing a frame, hoops, and press several feet in diameter. The frame was lined with special cheese-cloth and for days the curd made from the milk on his 150 cow dairy farm was put into this frame. Each day the whey was squeezed out and the end product weighed 1,400 pounds. The cheese was boxed, sealed and ready for delivery to President Jackson in Washington.

The milk from this dairy was converted into cheese in his own factory. The Saturday Evening Post in its issue of February 4, 1933, 'Moving Day at the White House' by Margaret Morris mention is made of the 1400 lb. cheese sent to President Andrew Jackson in 1835 by the 'home folks' and Colonel Thomas Meacham was responsible for this gift, the cheese having been made on his farm.

When completed the colonel was determined to have it sent forth on its travels in grand style. So he obtained forty-eight gray horses, placed the cheese on a big wagon covered with flags, and started for Port Ontario. All the farmers for miles around were invited to drive before and after the monster cheese. The procession, nearly a mile in length, moved to Pulaski, where a halt was made, and the hoop removed from the large cheese, allowing the multitude gathered at that rural hamlet to feast their eyes upon the monster cheese. They proceeded to the port where the cheese was shipped on the 15th of November, 1835. The boat moves away from the wharf amid the firing of cannon and the applause of the people who waved farewell to Colonel Meacham as he started on his tour. The trip to Washington began by way of Oswego, Syracuse, Erie Canal, Albany and New York and the enthusiasm did not wane along the route. The cheese reached the Capital and was formally presented to the President of the United States in the name of the 'Governor and the people of the State of New York and the Town of Sandy Creek.'

The 'Big Cheese' was kept until February 22, 1836, when the President issued an invitation to all the people of the capital to 'eat cheese'. The following description of that scene was given by an eye-witness: 'This is Washington's Birthday. The President, the departments, the Senate, and we the people, have celebrated by eating a big cheese. The President's house was thrown open, the multitude swarmed in. The Senate of the United States adjourned. The representatives of the various departments turned out. Representatives in swarms left the Capital all for the purpose of eating cheese. Mr. Van Buren was here to eat cheese. Mr. Webster was here to eat cheese. Mr. Woodbury, Mr. Dickerson, Colonel Benton and the gallant Colonel Trowbridge were eating cheese. The court, the fashion, the beauty of Washington, was all eating cheese. Officers in Washington, foreign representatives in stars and garters; gay, gorgeous, joyous and dashing women, in all the pride and panoply and pomp of wealth, were eating cheese. Cheese - cheese - cheese - was on everybody's lips and in everybody's mouth. All you heard was cheese. All you saw was cheese. All you smelt was cheese. It was cheese, cheese, cheese. Streams of cheese were going up the avenue in everybody's fists. Balls of cheese were in hundreds of pockets. Every handkerchief smelt of cheese. The whole atmosphere for a half a mile around was infected with cheese'.

According to old account books kept by the Colonel and found many years later, the cost of making and delivering the cheese was $1200. Four more large cheeses, each of 700 pounds were manufactured and delivered to Vice-President Van Buren, Governor Marcy and the Mayors of New York City and Rochester.

Stories of the Big Cheese can be found in several books, one written by Hayes Johnson 'The Working White House' and the 'White House Diary' by Henrietta Nesbitt who was FDR's housekeeper. Also, Oswego City Historian Rosemary Nesbitt wrote a book on the big cheese for children years ago and Helen Hastings included this story in the Northern New York History book she wrote.

A historic marker was placed in 2009 the site of Colonel Meacham's Big Cheese. The marker is on the Rohrmoser farm on Rt. 11 south of the village. It reads: 'In 1835 Colonel Thomas Meacham (1795-1847), on his farm on this site, created a 1400 pound, 11 feet, round cheese as a gift to President Andrew Jackson. An immense cheese-hoop and press were constructed and the milk from 150 cows was turned into curd. For five successive days it was piled into the great hoop. - It was then conveyed by boat via Oswego, Syracuse, Erie Canal, Albany, New York City and reached Washington in time for George Washington's birthday, February 22, 1836 when all the people of Washington were invited to eat cheese.'

Sandy Creek History Center presents: Chasing Trains - The History of Rail City - by Bob Groman - Saturday June 4 at Sandy Creek Town Hall at 7PM - a fascinating one hour presentation! Free to the public, refreshments will be served.

Charlene Cole
Sandy Creek/Lacona Historian
1992 Harwood Drive
Sandy Creek, NY 13145
315-387-5456 x7
office hours: Friday 9am to 2pm