After he bought the Cowlitz Valley Cheese Association factory at the end of Toledo’s Second Street in 1927, Art Karlen continued to operate it and installed a butter churn that year, according to The Toledo Community Story. The first churning produced 540 pounds of butter.
Toledo’s Commercial Club sponsored Cheese Day in the mid-1920s and early 1930s as it continued to draw thousands of people to Toledo. The afternoon baseball game became a tradition, and sports competitions grew to include wrestling and tennis matches. Stores closed at 11:30 a.m. for the day. People danced in the evenings to old-time and modern music. And everybody enjoyed cheese sandwiches for lunch.
During the mid-1930s, Cheese Day boosters began visiting nearby communities with a street program to tout the big all-day event in South Lewis County. They generated publicity with their caravans to Centralia, Chehalis, Longview, Kelso, Winlock, Vader, Ryderwood, Salkum and Mossyrock. The 1935 event featured a hillbilly band, novelty costumes, old-time dances, yodeling, a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. Volunteers slapped together sandwiches with butter, mayonnaise and 210 pounds of cheese for lunch.
The 1936 Cheese Day featured a performance by the award-winning 45-piece Carbon Glacier VFW boys and girls drum and bugle corps in addition to other Cheese Day events.
Then, in June 1937, Cheese Day expanded to a three-day celebration running Friday through Sunday under the sponsorship of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which took over from the Toledo Commercial Club, according to an April 2, 1937, Chehalis Bee-Nugget article.
The governors of Oregon and Washington were the scheduled speakers at that Cheese Day, according to the June 18, 1937, Chehalis Bee-Nugget. At the time, the two states both had Democratic governors with the surname of Martin — Washington Gov. Clarence D. Martin (1933 to 1941) and Oregon Gov. Charles H. Martin (1935 to 1939). Schmitt’s big carnival concessions set up for the weekend, with entertainment, sports events including the traditional Cheesemakers baseball game, and dancing.
Cheese Day was suspended during World War II, even though the cheese factory continued operating. However, it quit producing cheese and focused instead on selling butter and powdered milk, according to “The Toledo Community Story.”
In 1945, Karlen closed the plant, in part because of competition from larger co-ops and lack of marketing capabilities, “The Toledo Community Story” states.
In April 1948, the newly organized Toledo Lions Club decided to resurrect Cheese Day, which had last taken place in June 1941. It remained a one-day event until the club added a logging show and again expanded it to three days in the early 1950s. At its peak, about 4,000 or more people attended the Cheese Day loggers jamboree and ball.
The 1952 Cheese Day featured a big thaw-guessing contest. Organizers hoisted a 300-pound block of ice on the scales on top of Ted Ziegler’s service station, with a clock set to stop when the ice melted to a weight of 50 pounds. The person who guessed closest to the minute when the clock stopped won $100, according to the Daily Chronicle’s June 4, 1952, edition. Other events were fireworks at the Cowlitz River, boat races, a carnival, free airplane rides, two dances and crowning of Mr. Big Cheese. As the Big Cheese, Clyde Calvin mounted a white stallion, shouted “Hi-Ho Silver,” and led the parade through the city to the school grounds. Candidates in 1953 for Mr. Big Cheese were Kenny Ray, Elmer Hayaranen, Toad Washburn, and Bill Walrod. Sam Woody won the Big Cheese honor in 1954.
In 1955, instead of a Big Cheese, organizers started crowning a Cheese Day queen, described by the Daily Chronicle as Miss Cheesecake contenders. First to hold that honor was Carol Kaiser.
Events added to three-day Cheese Day celebration in the 1950s were a farm show with bale breaking, sack sewing, wild pig catching, wagon backing and the mayor’s milking contest. A logging show took place in the afternoon.
A Scottish pipe band played in 1957, but by then organizers had dropped the logging show. Always people enjoyed free cheese sandwiches, but in 1959, the Lions Club decided against holding a parade—perhaps a hint of what was to come.
In 1961, the Lions Club had pared back the event to two days, but included the parade, a dunk tank, and wrestling exhibitions. But afterward the club voted to quit sponsoring Cheese Day and focus instead on fixing up the community park and other projects.
They waited in vain for another group to step forward as sponsor. Instead, the community planned to skip the festival in 1962 … but nobody notified the carnival and some of the concessionaires who started setting up for a Cheese Day event not yet planned.
“Cheese Day leaders jumped and staged the celebration, and, remarkably enough, it turned out to be quite a success,” the Daily Chronicle reported Oct. 10, 1966.
Then Cheese Day truly died.
That is, until the Toledo Jaycees decided to bring it back in 1975. With the theme “Old Days Are Not Forgotten,” the Jaycees revived the traditional three-day celebration, but in July rather than in June. It featured a parade, children’s games, a logging show at the high school football field, an old-time fiddlers’ jamboree, baseball game and dance. Myrtle Ferrier was the 1975 Big Cheese.
The Toledo Lions Club then resumed organizing Cheese Days and still does so today.
News of Toledo’s historic celebration spread across the nation via the Associated Press in July 1999 when a photographer shared a picture of seven-year-old Derek Comstock biting into his cheese sandwich, one of more than 1,000 made that year. His photo appeared July 13, 1999, in both the Times-News of Twin Falls, Idaho, and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.