Connect the Dots: Cheesefactory Road’s Name

Published July 8, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in South Burlington’s The Other Paper.

Q: How did Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne and South Burlington get its name?

A: When I decided to research how Cheesefactory Road got its name, I guessed I would find an old neighborhood cheese factory in its past. But I discovered some connected features, too: an abandoned road, and a small but critical brook I’d never noticed. As I dug deeper, other neighborhood features turned up, as well. At one end of the road there had been a church, parsonage, and a one-room schoolhouse, and at the other end a blacksmith shop and an old tavern. This road had stories to tell!

The cheese factory that gave the road its name was built in 1873 and operated for about 10 years. There is no trace of the building left today, but it was on the south side of Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne, right where the road dips a bit near the South Burlington town line. The factory drew milk from neighboring dairy farms, and from the factory you could see some of the pasturing Jersey cows chewing their cud and flicking their tails.

The factory needed access to water, so it was placed next to the small brook that crosses at the dip in the road, called Seeley Brook on old maps but unnamed on modern maps. The factory held water rights to Seeley Brook, and used it to clean their equipment, and more. They also established a wagon road (now gone) following the brook south to where it empties into Shelburne Pond ¾ of a mile away. At the pond, they harvested ice in the winter time. They cut the ice by hand, hauled it up the wagon road to the factory, and packed it in sawdust to keep it from melting. Without any electricity, the ice kept their milk and cheese cold all year long.  

.1869 Beers Atlas map of the northeast corner of Shelburne showing Seeley Brook crossing what is now Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne at the town line with South Burlington, and showing Shelburne Pond where the ice for the cheese factory was cut. The school (No. 5) and M.P.Ch. (Methodist Church) and Parsonage can be seen at the corner of Dorset Street and Cheesefactory Road.

The local farmers may not have realized it, but this was the beginning of a major shift in their livelihoods. Up until the factory came, typical neighborhood dairy farm families not only hand-milked their 15-20 cows, they also turned all their milk into cheese and butter on the farm and sold those finished products. But with the coming of the cheese factory here (and one near Shelburne Falls in 1871), local farmers could sell liquid milk to someone else to make a finished product.

Comparing numbers from the Shelburne agricultural censuses before and after the cheese factories came captures this change well. From 1870 to 1880, cheese produced on farms went from 31,000 lbs. down to 5700 lbs. (about 1/5 of what it had been). Liquid milk sold off the farm went from 3000 gallons up to 360,000 gallons, a more than 100-fold increase in ten years. The total number of cows in town increased in that 10-year period, too, and the increased production went into liquid milk sold off the farm.

The one almost unchanged number in the ten-year span was butter made on the farm. Hand-churning butter is much simpler than the culturing, curdling, pressing, and aging needed to make cheese, so it’s not surprising that cheese making was outsourced first. The change in farmers’ daily lives must have been significant: they mostly stopped making cheese at home, and instead drove their liquid milk daily through the neighborhood to the factory.

For the factory’s 10 years or so, what farmers saw on their drive depended on which way they came. From the Dorset St. end, they might hear the school bell and see schoolchildren heading to the one-room schoolhouse that was once just south of the corner. On Sundays, they might see parishioners going to the Methodist Church that was once at the intersection’s southwest corner, or see the minister coming out of the parsonage just down Barstow Road. 

View southwest from near the corner of Dorset Street and Cheesefactory Road. The brown area on the lower right is the wetlands of Shelburne Pond that haven’t greened up yet in the spring. The mountain on the horizon is Camel’s Hump.

Farmers coming from the Hinesburg Road end might hear the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil at the corner blacksmith shop. They might see the stagecoach rumbling by on Hinesburg Road, or the old brick tavern/inn just north of the intersection (now a private home). Maybe they were remembering the fiddle music at the community dances held at the tavern’s spring floor upstairs.

.Old brick tavern and inn on Hinesburg Road in South Burlington near the end of Cheesefactory Road

By the turn of the century, most of the small, rural neighborhood cheese factories in Vermont had closed as larger, centralized ones became common and butter production was added, as well. As I drive down Cheesefactory Road now, I wait for that dip in the road, and remember the road’s namesake. Although the cheese factory is long gone, the Cheesefactory Road neighborhood has kept its rural character well into the 21st century. Bread and Butter Farm hays some of the same fields that were hayed 150 years ago. And they sell their finished agricultural products directly off the farm, echoing the earlier 19th century farmers while evolving into the 21st century.

Tractor raking cut hay into windrows to prepare it for baling. On Bread and Butter Farm on Cheesefactory Road.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney