COLUMNS

Aurora was once “Cheese Capital of the World”

JOHN KUDLEY JR.
Cheese Barons Frank Hurd, left, and Willis J. Eldridge playing cards in the parlor of Hurd's home at 50 S. Chillicothe Road, commonly referred to by many as the "Big Green Monster."

One may find it hard to believe that a small village in Northeast Ohio was once the “Cheese Capital of the World.”

Aurora had a long history of making, trading and selling cheese worldwide, from Canada, to England, to China as well as throughout the United States. Aurora is the oldest cheese producing town in the state, as men took cheese by wagon through forest and over rut-covered roads to Pittsburgh as early as 1811.

How did Aurora become the “Cheese Capital of the World? The answer lies in the misadventures of a couple youthful apple thieves.

In March, 1800 Moses Pond and Jonathan Brooks arrived at the home of Elias Harmon in Mantua. Harmon and his wife had been employed by Ebenezer Sheldon to help him clear the land and build a log cabin in the spring of 1799.

Pond and Brooks had carried with them a knapsack full of apple seeds. Clearing land in Mantua in the center of Lot 35 made enough land for a nursery of 1,000 trees.

Pascal McIntosh of Mantua purchased their seedlings and added them to his peach orchard. His apples were highly sought late in the season as his orchards were on high ground and avoided the early frost.

Then McIntosh was accused by locals of being “unreasonably pernicious and stingy with his fruit.”

It was therefore common belief that “it was no sin to rob his orchard.” McIntosh would guard his orchard at night and often hired others to help. Several of his hired hands sold “indulgences to those who came for apples to take what they pleased.”

In the fall of 1819, near the end of the season, a group of Aurora boys broke into the barn where McIntosh had stored his best apples. Before they could get away, McIntosh was in hot pursuit of the boys. The only thing that McIntosh was able to capture was “Esq. Ebenezer Sheldon Jr’s old mare that had made sport for the boys.”

Sheldon, being a man of high regard, was “above suspicion.”

However, McIntosh spent several days searching for evidence and had several boys arrested — some of whom were guilty and others innocent. The boys were examined at length by justices of the peace John Harmon and Caleb Carlton.

The boys were tried in the court of commons pleas and were found innocent based on the lack of evidence. One of the boys who narrowly escaped conviction was Julius Riley, who was in fact the only one that was innocent.

Two boys, Royal Taylor and Harvey Baldwin, deemed it wise to leave Aurora rather than be convicted. The two made their way down the Ohio River to New Orleans where they discovered that English cheese was being sold for $1 a pound.

The two boys returned to Aurora and appeased McIntosh, and Baldwin gathered up a ton of cheese, hauling it to Beaver Point, Pa. by wagon. There he transferred the cheese to a skiff and rowed down the Ohio River. He sold his cheese along the way in Wheeling, Marietta and other towns until he reached Louisville, Ky., where he ran out.

He returned to Aurora to expand his new found wealth.

Thus, the seed was planted and other Aurora entrepreneurs ventured into the cheese industry.

Early in Aurora’s history cheese making was a “cottage industry” with local farmers producing and transporting their cheese to market. In 1808, Susan Forward wrote about her promising economic outlook in dairying and cheese production.

“I must inform you that the summer past I have made more cheese than I ever made before in one year. We shall greatly increase our stock of cows another year, perhaps enough to make two tons of cheese, which in Pittsburgh will bring $500 in money.”

Ebenezer Sheldon wrote to his uncle Martin Sheldon in Suffield, Conn.,  and said, “We have made some cheese which I expect to sell for money to pay our taxes. My team is now gone to Pittsburgh with a load and we shall have about half a ton more to spare, which we have made a contract to take it here at our house at 10 cents per pound.”

Throughout the early half of the 19th Century getting the product to distant markets was limited to wagons and canals.

Although the Cleveland-Warren Road (Route 43) and Twinsburg-Warren Road (Route 82) were two of the least obstructed roads in the Western Reserve, secondary roads were often impassable.

The arrival of the Cleveland & Mahoning Railroad in 1856 helped make Aurora one of the largest cheese distribution centers connecting Aurora to nationwide and foreign markets, ushering in Aurora’s Golden Age. By 1819 Aurora cheese was being shipping down the Ohio River to southern cities.

While Aurora only had 10% of Portage County’s cheese factories, Aurora’s “Cheese Barons” Frank Hurd and Willis J. Eldridge created a monopoly, ensuring its shipment from Aurora Station. In 1904, 4 million pounds of cheese were shipped from Aurora.

Hurd and Eldridge were good friends, but ardent rivals in the cheese industry. Hurd was owner and operator of eight cheese factories and warehouses in Aurora, while Eldridge had 16 factories in surrounding townships. Their rivalry was displayed by their neighboring homes located on South Chillicothe Road and separated only by Maple Lane.

While Eldridge built an imposing Queen Anne style home (50 S. Chillicothe Rd.) commonly referred to by many as the “Big Green Monster”, Hurd built a more traditional style home (30  South Chillicothe) which at the time was considered the grandest in Aurora.

Aurora’s “Golden Age” of the cheese industry lasted for almost 100 years before it came to an end due to the growth of dairy producers in Cleveland and other larger cities, which dramatically increased the cost of local production. In addition, Aurora producers were hurt by the use of refrigerated rail cars, which sped the transportation of milk to market before it would spoil. What remained of the diminishing cheese industry in Aurora was wiped out by the disastrous flood of 1913.

Kudley is president of the Aurora Historical Society.