In front of a butter churn, Scott Gilles, curator of the Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum, holds a replica of a 90-pound cheese wheel.
Pictured is award-winning artisan cheesemaker Shep Ysselstein of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese Ltd.
It’s an inescapable reality – Oxford County is the Dairy Capital of Canada and boasts some of the most incredible historic facts pertaining to the production of high quality cheese.
Most living within the county and many outside the confines of the region know that the community of Ingersoll was the county’s cheese capital from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, packaging much of the county’s renowned cheddar.
It was home to the first cheese factory in Canada, established around 1840. In 1866 a giant block of cheese weighing 7,300 pounds (3,311 kilograms) was produced at the James Harris Cheese Factory and then exhibited in England and the United States at the New York State Fair in Saratoga.
During the 1800s there were 98 cheese factories in Oxford County, with the first cooperative cheese factory in Upper Canada located here.
Yet, while these facts and even more are well-documented and known to residents and visitors alike, up until just recently, a vehicle to explore this intriguing slice of Oxford history hasn’t been readily available. That is, until this past January when Tourism Oxford celebrated the county’s cheese association both past and present with the creation of the innovative Oxford County’s Cheese Trail.
Essentially the 14-point tour is a self-guided, ongoing event with no time limits, providing individuals and groups the perfect first-hand, up-close opportunity to explore, be educated and entertained at the same time by the county’s glorious connection to cheese.
The fascinating journey begins with a stop at Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese Ltd. and a visit with award-winning cheesemaker Shep Ysselstein and his knowledgeable staff. In August the unique operation will mark its second anniversary, offering a steady stream of cheese fanciers and just the curious, the chance to see just how the process is carried out.
“We’re open and just delighted to show people just how cheese is made,” says Ysselstein, a master craftsman and recipient of the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix award in the firm cheese category for his Five Brothers creation (made with Canadian milk) based on appanzeller cheese.
“We have a short video that details the very long and slow process. I or someone else on staff will go through the cheeses we make, explain what is different about them and what they are based upon. Of course, you can taste them. All of us love talking about the history of the product in Oxford, the farm and our store, and what we do here. It’s great to connect with the public in this way.”
Kidding that it’s much the oft-repeated quote from the move – “build it and they will come” – he says there will be even more educational and entertaining activities and events offered down the road. One of the most popular activities is Cheesemaker for a Day, outlining the process to groups in both a hands-on and theoretical manner.
Just a few steps down the road, artist Janice K. Lee Marshall – the owner of Just-A-Few-Fotos – shows a visually stunning rendering of the industry in her cozy studio.
Born and raised on a small dairy farm in Clinton, Wisconsin, she has been interested in farm animals since she was a youth. She looks back fondly at her grandparents Jersey cow and calf and grew up caring for calves from the 28 Holstein cows which her parents milked.
On her 23rd birthday she received a 35mm camera and from that time on has been endeavoring to capture the spirit that makes each animal unique. is one of her projects.
“My business has been around for about the last 10 years but the work and my interest in animals has been a big part of my life for much longer,” she says.
Local historian Marie Avey loves to discuss the Norwich and District Museum’s extensive collection of agriculture and dairy industry artifacts. A volunteer and board member, she points proudly to the township’s reputation as being in the forefront of dairy and cheese production.
“When it comes to the commercial cooperative cheese factory, it was started here,” she explains. “Harvey Farrington, from New York, established one in 1864 on Quakers Street – the Commercial Cooperative Cheese Factory. Others spread rapidly through Oxford.
“At the museum we have a very large collection of butter churns and many cheese artifacts that tell the story. Norwich was in the foreground of Holstein breeding as well, so there is a lot to learn here. We welcome everyone – young and old, resident or visitor – to spend some time with us. If you want to know about dairy and cheese, this is the place to come.”
Right in the heart of cheese country, Scott Gilles has the ideal job as curator of the Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum.
“We have a 20 minute video that people can view, showing all the various stages of the entire cheesemaking process,” he says. “It was filmed in a factory and is narrated by former curator Shirley Lovell. It’s absolutely fascinating.
“There is also a replica of a working 19th century factory with variety of packaging samples, all the machinery used in machinery like 90 gallon milk cans for delivery and paddles to stir the milk. If you want to learn and be entertained at the same, just drop by. We show how cheese and butter were made in the 19th century and love telling the story of that famous 3,300-kilogram wheel of cheese.”
Also in Ingersoll is Patina’s Gifts of Art and Craft, a showplace of hand crafted pottery, cheese platters and other cheese-oriented items for purchase.
“There are also local history books from the local historical association, so there is plenty to see and read about here,” says store co-owner Kathy Boyd.
The Elm Hurst Inn and Spa literally invites visitors to take a moment away from their travels along Highway 401 and check out the historically significant building. The structure, just up the road from the Ingersoll Museum, is on the grounds of the former James Harris Cheese Factory – the first commercial cheese factory built in Canada. The Harris family now serves as the inn’s restaurant. One of the culinary specialties is appropriately a cheddar soup.
An inviting cheese stop along the trail is Woodstock’s Dairy Capital Cheese Shoppe, run by Micheline Shea, always eager to talk about the various products the popular shop has to offer regular and new customers.
“We always have fresh cheese curds and you can buy local cheeses or something from our great variety of gourmet and artisan cheeses. Customers can order cheese trays. You’ll find the finest cheese from Oxford and we’ll give you a taste to see what you like.
“If you want a little more information, I or another staff member will be happy to tell you whatever you need to know about the products. This is the cheese capital so we are happy to be part of this grand tradition.”
The eighth spot along the journey is the Birtch Farms and Estate Winery, which offers tastings of fine wines, along with local foods like Oxford cheeses and local food baskets like Everything Oxford and the 100-Mile Basket.
McKay Birtch was attracted to the area’s excellent soils and a gentle south-facing slope in 1946. It was first operated as a mixed farm for several years with the first apple trees planted in 1956. Current owners Bob and his wife Dyann bought the farm from McKay in 1978. The popular operation has been expanding ever since then.
Gerard Hamoen, co-owner of the Just For You bed and breakfast, enthusiastically invites visitors with the promise of beautiful garden views, top-flight accommodations and, of course, local artisan cheese selections.
“The gouda cheese here is superb,” he says. “And if you want some cheese with your meals, anytime of the day, we would be more than happy to see that is what you will get.”
While Coyle’s Country Store, just outside of Tillsonburg, doesn’t have any specific cheese related items at the moment, there is still an important connection to the Oxford County industry.
“There used to be a cheese house right down the road from us and there is one now the Village Cheese Mill in Salford,” says J.R. Coyle. “We are sort of an anchor and we get an awful lot of visitor traffic both from inside the region and well outside, including busloads of American tourists.
“As for the possibility of cheese related products, well that is something we may venture into later down the road.”
Woodstock’s Saturday Farmers’ Market, established in 1843, is still famous for featuring every imaginable sort of local produce from Oxford County farmers – from dairy products to meat and vegetables. And there is a cheese connection.
“I discovered that Bailey’s Cheese was at the downtown Farmers’ Market for quite a number of years, and moved to the Woodstock Fairgrounds with the market in 1993,” says Lorna Cassone, who co-manages the market with husband Ray.
“Springbank Cheese took over after Bailey’s around about 1998. So cheese is still an important part of the market.”
If historical information on cheese in Oxford is what you’re looking for, then the Bright Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Co. Ltd. is another no-miss location and number 12 on the cheese trail.
It was established in 1874 by a group of local farmers who had a surplus of milk each month from their livestock. A cheese production facility at first, the company added butter November 1, 1911. Just north of Bright, the company is renowned for its naturally aged cheese made with 100 per cent local milk.
“Our store has all the goods that we produce,” says general manager Ted Woolcott. “You can have it cut off into a block or any size you want. If you want a little more on the history, we have many interesting books on sale. They give an excellent perspective of what we are all about.”
If entertainment, along with the prerequisite cheese snacks, is an essential, then the Walters Dinner Theatre is the place to spend some time. The family operation started with Grandpa George, a fiddler who entertained his grandchildren – Bradley, Kimberly and Darren – with songs.
Now with the Walters Family Band entertaining folks from all over the world, the business has never looked back.
The final stop on the trail is Jakeman’s Maple Farm. The story started in 1876 when George and Betsy Anne Jakeman left Oxfordshire, England to settle in Oxford County, near Woodstock. Since that time, the family firm has gained national and international fame as a leading producer of high quality maple syrup.
Today Bob and Mary Jakeman, with family members, maintain the production from more than 1,000 taps.