Google mapped a convoluted path to our destination, but I probably would have found it – eventually. The problem was apparent. The smartphone’s female navigator voice confirmed our arrival, but what we beheld was a sprawling vacant corner lot on which freight trucks and trailers parked. The landmark we sought had been razed; the familiar sign was gone.
No trace remained of the Ardmore Cheese Co., once a producer of millions of pounds of product annually and buyer of raw milk from family farms like the one on which I grew up. In its hey-day, the “Cheese Factory,” as everyone referred to the operation, provided direct and in-direct employment to more than 500 individuals and farm families in southern Tennessee and northern Alabama.
Memories of youth and young adulthood long forgotten often click unexpectedly into the forebrain of people my age. Something triggers the recollection. Then we start pondering, probing, and asking ourselves, “I wonder if that… is still there?” This was the case when a holiday cheese catalog from Wisconsin arrived in my mailbox.
My father never sold milk to the Cheese Factory, but we knew people who made decent extra income from it. Our two cows had all they could do supplying five hungry children, assorted nieces and nephews, plus adults, with milk and butter.
I remember when the Cheese Factory sent a fleet of trucks on daily rounds to pick up raw milk at farms, large and small. Milk cans sitting beside the rural roads in those days were a common sight. The farming operations might boast scores of Holsteins or a couple of Jerseys. It didn’t matter if they had surplus milk to sell.
Ardmore Cheese Co. was established in the late 1930s. During World War II, production ramped up to more than 1 million pounds of cheese. In 1941, most of it was sent to England to help the island nation feed its soldiers and citizens as they fought Hitler’s Nazi armies.
In the late 1960s, the factory produced more than 2 million pounds of cheese a year. Contracts with large food distributors like Kraft, Inc., helped grow the business.
Ardmore Cheese Co. was noted for its aged cheddar cheese, sold in 25- and 50-lb. wheels (called “hoops” by those who relished the pungent smell and sharp tang of this dairy product).
Rural stores in the region sold Ardmore hoop cheese by the slice or pound from the large wheels, along with saltine crackers and rag bologna (lunch meat packaged in a fabric tube). Thus, road workers, farmers, housewives, and traveling salesmen could enjoy cheese-cracker-and-bologna lunches, doused in hot sauce if it was their preference.
At Christmas, our clan would drive to Ardmore to purchase cheese at the retail shop. No Wisconsin dairy products for us or hundreds of other families. Quite simply, most holiday gatherings would not be complete without a wheel of locally made hoop cheese.
After I married and our children came along, the annual Cheese Factory trek continued. It was a special trip, just like driving out to the Christmas tree farm. Consequently, 30 years later a cheese catalog sparked the crazy idea that some vestige of the Ardmore Cheese Co. might exist, perhaps the retail store we loved.
My fellow adventurer and I headed south on I-65 and turned off at the Ardmore-Huntsville exit. We drove past the now defunct Country Club honky-tonk that in my wilder days I visited for partying and playing pinball games that paid off in cash. We also passed the old Fox Theater, the local movie house that for decades showed first-run films chosen for family appeal, not sex or violence.
We’d gone too far, so turned around and backtracked to the empty lot once occupied by the Cheese Factory. I should have known it would be a wild goose chase. As it turned out – and thanks to the ladies at the Ardmore Public Library and their local history room – Ardmore Cheese Co. might be gone, but not forgotten.
Local residents on both sides of the state line (part of Ardmore is in Alabama) fondly remember when the factory was the area’s major employer, and the impact it had on family farms in several counties. The library archives told the story of what happened at the end of the operation’s 50-year run.
The dairy industry is volatile due to federal regulations, state health requirements and supply-demand challenges. The cottage business of surplus raw milk sales from small farms -- once so common -- was strangled out of existence.
The Cheese Factory went through ownership changes, becoming Avalon Cheese, and finally closed in 1991. A retail outlet continued for a while, but the cheese products were produced elsewhere – likely in Wisconsin.
I still treasure the remembrance of milk cans sitting beside dusty gravel roads and the huge wheels of hoop cheese in country stores. What I miss most is a slab of Ardmore cheese (room temperature so all the flavor bursts forth) sandwiched between crackers with a bottle of Double Cola to wash it all down.
Bologna or sardines would be optional.