If you’ve ever actually been in a natural underground cave you know that it’s not just pitch dark inside the cave, but cold. In the millenia before the invention of refrigeration, this was a useful property, and people living in areas with natural caves took advantage of them to preserve food.
As it happens, we have lots of naturally occurring caves in the Pacific Northwest, the result of dramatic volcanic upheaval that took place thousands and millions of years ago. In particular, the western part of Klickitat County, Washington (in the shadow of Mt. Adams in the south-central part of the state) is full of caves…not only is it a favorite haunt of mushroom and huckleberry hunters, it’s also well known to cave explorers.
This area was settled by dairy farmers in the 1880s, and dairy has been part of the area’s history since then. Once the farmers found the caves (they’re all over the place around there), they used them to store produce like potatoes and apples. Later, they used the caves to store butter and cheese made by the local cooperative creamery.
Fast forward to the 1930s and 40s. At the time, American scientists were spending a lot of time scheming about how to replicate the blue cheeses of France that were no longer being imported into the United States due to political turmoil and World Wars in Europe. Can you see where this is going? An enterprising man named Homer Spencer put two and two together. Spencer, working in conjunction with the USDA, had the bright idea to develop the caves of Klickitat County into something resembling those at Roquefort, France.
more + photos of the cheese caves ——>
Though Spencer’s company, Guler Cheese Co., is long gone now, you can still see the remnants of this bit of Northwest cheesemaking history in Trout Lake, Washington. Down a long dirt road, still unpaved even in 2010, is the A-frame house that marks the site (photo at the top of this post). That’s where the main operation used to be. Inside the house – which was built long after the cheese operation closed – are stairs that lead down into the cave, but today the house is boarded up and they’re inaccessible. At least from the outside.
But, there is another entrance to the cave system, about 1/4 of a mile away down the road. Did I mention that it’s called Cheese Cave Road?
That’s the cave entrance above – you can just see the ladder sticking up out of the top. I visited this site a couple of weeks ago but didn’t have the gear (in particular, a big ol’ light!) to go down in the cave. But I was able to hunt down some photos of the interior courtesy of photographer Carolyn Ganus, who has been inside.
As you can see, these caves are HUGE. This particular lava tube extends for almost 2000 feet. According to Carolyn it’s a pretty easy walk from the opening over to the main cheese cave area (note: see the comments below for additional advice about exploring this cave from Carolyn).
The main cave is approximately 25 feet long by 35 feet high. Temperatures stay a pretty even 42-44 degrees fahrenheit thorughout the year. There you’ll find the stairs leading up to the main house.
Old newspaper articles about Guler Cheese Co. show that the main staircase was originally made of wood – but you can imagine that it would probably have deteriorated over time in this enclosed humid environment.
The actual cheesemaking operation was in a nearby building on the property. Once the cheese was made, workers would have had to carry wheels of cheese down the stairs into the cave for aging. After about 6 months of aging (having been turned and brushed multiple times per week) the cheese would have been carried back out, packaged and sold. Would you have wanted to work in these cheese caves? I’m not sure I would have.
Above are some of the old, broken down racks once used to hold hundreds of wheels of blue cheese. They’re just lying about in the cave today, faint reminders of what went before.
Guler Cheese Co. made blue cheese from the early 1940s through the mid-50s, first under the Guler Cheese label, then under the Black Rock Cheese label. At the time, a big selling point for the cheese was that these caves lie at approximately the same latitude as those at Roquefort, France. There was also the small matter of a messy divorce between Homer Spencer and his wife, the daughter of the owners of the property where these caves are. Now it’s all just a bit of interesting local lore and cheesemaking history.
But the story does not end there…the history of cheesemaking in Trout Lake, Washington has recently been resurrected. John Schuman recently started Cascadia Creamery in Trout Lake and has been making cow’s milk cheeses for most of the past year now. He’s using Jersey cow’s milk from several cows that he owns and pastures at a local dairy and is making some great aged raw milk cheeses….so stay tuned, I think you might be hearing more about cheese in Trout Lake in the future.