Whenever a kid in Lanark County heard the word ‘Balderson’ spoken at their home, most of the time their thoughts turned to cheese. The Balderson Cheese Factory was a short drive up the Lanark Road from our place, and they made the best cheese in the world. People came from miles around to buy Balderson Cheese, curds, and butter, and our family was no different. Usually a visit to the cheese factory took place as part of a Sunday drive.
Balderson was a small hamlet situated about halfway between Perth and Lanark and was one of the earliest communities settled along with Perth. Balderson, a suburb was also settled partly by soldiers, and partly by Scottish immigrants from Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands. It was founded by Sergeant Balderson in June 1816.
When we spent time in Balderson during the 1960s and 1970s some of the family names were: Bell, Burns, Davidson, Devlin, Haley, Jones, Kennedy, King, McGregor, McIntyre, McTavish, Myers and Newman.
The ‘new’ factory, built after the 1929 fire
The Balderson Cheese Factory had already been operating for many decades by the time I first remember it. The factory was established 1881. It was formed by a group of dairy farmers of Lanark County. They were known as the Farmer’s Cheese and Butter Association of Balderson. They decided to use the excess milk that they were each producing on their farms, build a factory, produce Cheddar cheese and sell it locally. They built a small, plain-looking, wood-frame building near the Balderson Corners crossroads.
Balderson Cheese Factory – Loading Dock
In the early days, each dairy farmer would bring their milk by horse and wagon and drop it off at the factory. Later, to become more efficient, special milk wagons were built and routes were established and workers from the factory would go from farm to farm picking up the milk.
‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 20, 1962
Just twelve years after opening, the Balderson Cheese Factory was one of the twelve factories that contributed cheese to create the ‘Mammoth’ cheese for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The old timers said that it was six feet high and weighed over 20,000 lbs.
In 1929, a fire burned the original factory and all that was left was the concrete floor.
‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 13, 1929
Although Dad was familiar with the original factory, we had only seen the one that was rebuilt in 1930. It was a plain-looking building and was built in a similar style to many of the other local cheese factories, in and around Perth. There was a small sign outside and the inside they had a very small counter and sold three products: cheese – yellow or coloured orange, cheese curds, and butter. You could buy mild cheese or old cheese, and Dad preferred the older ‘sharp’ cheese and liked to enjoy it with a slice of Mother’s homemade apple pie. The cheese was cut from rounds, wrapped in waxed paper and sealed with a piece of scotch tape. There was one person working behind the counter that would get your cheese and ring it up on the cash register. Everyone else worked in the back.
Cheese-Maker, Balderson Cheese Factory
Dad would often know the person working behind the counter, and he’d ask if we could go back and watch them make the cheese. Now, that was really interesting! There was always a distinct smell in the factory, even at the front counter. It smelled kind of like buttermilk, and the air always seemed very warm and humid. It was behind the counter where all the magic took place.
‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 20, 1962
There were huge metal vats, filled with heated milk. I don’t know what they use now, but in those days, they added rennet to the milk to make it curdle. Rennet was an acid which could be found in the fourth stomach of calves and was used for digestion. When the rennet was added to the milk it curdled and formed into clumps. The workers in the factory would walk around with long wooden paddles and stir the vats. Some were newly curdling and were very easy to stir, others in later stages required quite a bit of muscle to stir because the curds were forming in large, heavy clumps. In the last vat the salt was added and some of the curds were strained out and sold, but the remainder would be pressed into huge round wooden molds. The molds were lined with cheesecloth so that the cheese wouldn’t stick when it was time to remove it.
At the rear of the old factory, double walls were built two feet thick, with sawdust packed inside as insulation to keep the cheese cool as it cured. After the cheese was strained and pressed into molds it was stored in the curing room. The whey, the liquid that was strained from the cheese, was stored in big tanks. In the old days the whey was returned to the farmers to use as feed, but later when tighter government regulations were introduced the whey was dumped. Each cheese was waxed, boxed, weighed, molded, inspected, cooled, turned and shipped. The cheese was regularly inspected by Government inspectors and the stock turns over every ten days. The cheese remained in the curing room until it was shipped.
Vat of Curd and Whey
Cheese making was an art form in Balderson and their Master Cheese Maker when I was a kid, was Omar Matte. Mr. Matte had begun making cheese when he was fifteen working for his father in St. Albert. By the 1960s he had been making cheese for 27 years. In those days, Mr. Matte would mold 120 tons of cheese per year and most was shipped to the Sanderson Grading Station in Oxford where it went on to foreign markets. Ten tons of cheese on average was sold locally in the Balderson area. Over 100 tons of cheese and 9,000 pounds of butter produced yearly by the mid 1960s and sold all over North America.
There were many Master Cheese Makers before him – Chris J. Bell of Perth, James Somerville of Boyd’s, Walter Partridge of the Scotch Line, James Prentice of Perth, Charles Gallery of Perth, Robert Lucas of Jasper and Percy George of Christie Lake.
1881-1887 W. Brown
1888-1891 J. Milton 1888-1891
1892-1901 W.D. Simes
1902-1904 E.E. Haley
1905-1911 J.M. Scott
1912-1917 T.K. Whyte
1918-1921 M. Haley
1922-1929 A. Quinn
1930 G. Spencer
1931-1937 P. Kirkham
1937-1939 J.L. Prentice
1939-1941 C.J. Bell
1941-1942 J. Somerville
1943 W. Partridge
1944-1955 C. Gallery
1956-1958 R. Lucas
1959-1960 P. George
1961-1966 O. Matte
1966-1974 Y. Leroux
1975-1980 L. Lalonde
1980 N. Matte
As the years passed by, the cheese gained tremendous popularity, news of the product spread, and the little business was bought by a large company. After many decades the Balderson Cheese business has changed hands many times.
You can still find Balderson cheese today, and many types and grades of cheese available in all of the major supermarkets.
I smile whenever I see the Balderson name and think of the little hamlet outside of Perth. I remember our Sunday drives to the old cheese factory, and how they made the best curd in the world!
(story is an excerpt from ‘Lanark County Kid: My Travels Up and Down the Third Line’ ISBN: 978-0-9877026-16)