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The Legend of Monterey Jack Cheese

The California cheese story goes back more than two centuries to the arrival of the Franciscan padres in what is now known as California. The road by which it arrived here goes back as much as 2,000 years.

The collapse of the Roman Empire put an end to the cheese of antiquity. However, some aspects of Rome's cultural knowledge were preserved in Christian monasteries including the techniques of wine production and cheese making. In Europe, when the time came, the monks spread their knowledge abroad hand-in-hand with the preaching of religion, just as their later brethren did in California. One of the early countries to which the art of cheesemaking was introduced was the island of Majorca from which Fathers Serra, Palou and others came to introduce it in this state.

The mission fathers recognized cheese as a nutritious food that could be used on long journeys. Referring to his departure form Loreto Mission in Baja California as he embarked on his journey to Alta California and the work that lay ahead, Father Serra wrote in his diary, "And I took along no more provisions for so long a journey than a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese." Presumably, the cheese of that time was higher in acid and salt content and lower in moisture than it is now.

Father Maynard Geiger, Franciscan historian, on March 27, 1965 wrote, "I can definitely tell you that...the early California missions used the milk of cows for their chocolate and also make cheese for their enchiladas. During the starvation period between 1772 and 1774, milk helped to keep the struggling colony at Monterey alive."

In the latter part of 1950 and early in 1951, Joseph Hitchcok, who was born and raised in the Carmel Valley, engaged in an exchange of Letters tot he Editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. In one of these he wrote, "One of the earliest industries of the Valley was cheesemaking by the Boronda family after they settled here and built their adobe. The Queso del Pais, as it was then called by all Spanish- speaking pioneers, was later named Monterey Jack Cheese by David Jacks who was the first to put it on the market commercially.

"In those days there were no presses, so anyone making cheese made their own press. They made it by installing at the proper height a 2 x 12 plank and above at the proper height a 2 x 4 scantling, so as to give a place where another 2 x 4, 4 to 6 feet long, could be placed under and still leave room for a cheese of the proper size."

Subsequently, in this exchange of Letters to the Editor he wrote, "Referring to the origin of Jack Cheese, I still say that what I said in my first letter is backed up by the records of the mission fathers as told to me by Harry Downie, the curator at the Carmel Mission, plus my memory which dates back to the early 1880s. Whatever name the cheese went by does not change the origin or the fact that El Queso del Pais dates back to our early civilization by the pioneer mission fathers. Of course, people coming from carious parts of Spain and Mexico were accustomed to the cheese itself and manner of making it."

In its heyday, the great Hotel del Monte made cheese on its dairy farm manages by Will Hatton. They served it to their guests and sold it to them to take home, under the name Del Monte Cheese.

David Jacks arrived from Scotland in 1849 and eventually owned 60,000 acres in Monterey County. He operated 14 ranches among which were several dairies operated on shared with Swiss and Portuguese partners. He acquired much acreage by loaning old Mexican families money and, if they couldn't repay the loans, foreclosing on the mortgages. It was the way of the times but David Jacks operated on a more extensive scale than the others and during his lifetime his reputation suffered accordingly.

Norman C. Earl was the accountant and office manager for the partnership of the three daughters of David Jacks from 1933 to 1962, when the last of the sisters died. In a letter written in 1976, he said, "California and especially California education owes much to the family of David Jacks. I knew of their benefactions while I was with them. The multitude of gifts both to charities and private individuals, whether or not any tax benefit might result, would astound most people; yet these wonderful ladies never sought or wanted publicity. In fact, they insisted on anonymity. Margaret A. Jacks, the last of the family to die, justify the residue of her estate to Stanford. I understand it was the largest gift Stanford had received up to that time. Lee L. Hacks also gave Stanford a considerable sum. The University of California also benefited from the sisters' gifts. They were also generous with funds in support of the restoration of Old Monterey." (This includes Pacific House, Casa de Oro and Castro Adobe.)

So, if indeed the image of Don Dahee needed redeeming, his daughters did so handsomely.

Mrs. Amelie Elkinton reports record of Captain Cooper taking a shipment of 112 cheeses to the Argentine as early as 1833.

The shipment of cheese to brokers in San Francisco was begun by David Jacks for shipment to the towns of Mother Lode. This constitutes some of the earliest records of the coast ranched being paid for with the product of the cow -- cheese and butter.

The story is told that on an occasion the city of Monterey needed a fire engine which would cost $10,000. They didn't have the money in their treasury and the price would go up considerably if the engine was not bought then. The city fathers went to David Jacks and he loaned them $10,000 and took a mortgage on the city. When the date of the mortgage came due, he staged a bear-baiting and free whiskey for the town fathers. By now they had the funds in their treasury with which to repay the loan but the councilmen woke up the next morning with headaches and a realization that the date of repayment had gone by.

David Jacks had foreclosed on the town. However, on this occasion the townspeople raised such a ruckus that he gave their town back to them free and clear.