Here in our Midst: 150 Years of Cheese Making
When Jefferson Thompson bought a remote ranch in northern Marin County in 1865, he joined a second “Gold Rush” – one that provided fresh dairy products to a booming new city of San Francisco. Thompson soon began providing cheese to Californians, and his small ranch-based cheese factory continues to thrive today in the virtual center of the Marin-Sonoma artisanal cheese region. The business, Marin French Cheese, is the oldest continuously operating cheese factory in the United States.
Thompson, who had traveled overland to California from Illinois in the 1850s, joined several other cheese makers in Marin. The Steele family had pioneered commercial cheese manufacturing on their vast leased Point Reyes ranches in 1857, exploiting a demand for fresh cheese by city residents. Prior to that time, most cheese and butter had been shipped from the East and Europe around Cape Horn, with the arriving result often leaving much to be desired.
In 1865 the beautiful Hicks Valley - the northern part of Rancho de Novato named after pioneer William Hicks - was a budding dairy country, located on the road between Petaluma and the Point Reyes area. Thompson bought 700 acres under the shadow of Hicks Mountain and commenced making cheese. His neighbors produced butter on their dairies, but all shipped their products to the city via either Petaluma or Novato Creek on steamers and barges. At first, Thompson made use of his neighbors’ leftover buttermilk to make a “bar cheese,” which was popular in saloons. Thompson eventually developed a dairy ranch of his own, and in later years the family returned to utilizing milk from neighboring dairies, as they do today.
Thompson’s sons, Jefferson Jr. and Rudolph, took over in 1897. The brothers soon began to produce fine French cheeses including Camembert, Brie and Neufchatel. They changed the name of the cheese line to “Rouge et Noir” and grew the company into a popular brand in demand throughout California and the West.
“I can remember several times [in the 1920s] when father would buy a dozen or so of the little Camembert cheeses,” recalled 96-year-old George Fohlen recently. “He called them “Cabecous” and he would cover them with coarsely ground pepper, wrap each one with a grape leaf and put them all in a large jar and cover them with brandy. After a month or so … they were enjoyed with great delight.”
Third generation cousins Pierce Thompson and Ed Thompson took the reins in 1942. Demand for quality cheeses increased after World War II, so Marin French Cheese thrived and became a popular stopping place that everyone knew as “The Cheese Factory” on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Many is the story of a young couple falling in love at a picnic on the grounds, or family traditions that included visits to the Cheese Factory for picnics and celebrations. The factory employed many local women, who could be seen by customers through a large glass window as they packed cheese wedges in their distinctive red and white wrappers and talked about goings-on in the ranching community. Some of these women worked at the Cheese Factory for decades and were like family.
After Boyce’s death in 2010, Marin French Cheese was sold to France’s well-known family business Rians, which continued Boyce’s expansion activities and updated the production areas with state-of-the art equipment. In hosting a fun and informative (not to mention tasty) 150th birthday party in June, the Rians group showed their commitment to the future of this venerable local institution.