I never intended to become a cheese maker. Of all the futures I might have imagined for myself as a young adult, certainly none involved raw milk. So it was an unlikely path that brought me in my late twenties to the place where I was considering a job that could include making cheese.
I was eighteen when I drove away from the Pennsylvania farm where I grew up, and I felt very sure of a few things: I was leaving; I was going to college; I would become a teacher; and I most definitely was not going to be a farmer’s wife and get stuck in Lancaster County for the rest of my life. Generations of ancestors from both sides of my family had lived within a few miles of where the early settlers established themselves when they emigrated from Switzerland almost three hundred years before. Many of their descendants remained. Roots ran deep, but I was intent on uprooting, eager to leave my rural and parochial upbringing behind.
I couldn’t wait to leave behind the cows, the milk house, the stable, and the big refrigerated tank of unpasteurized milk. In spring the milk sometimes tasted so strongly of onion grass that Sylvan Seal, the milk company we had a contract with, rejected it. My mother, not wanting to let it go to waste, made every milkbased pudding she could think of and all the homemade ice cream we could eat. All of it tasted like onion. But all the puddings and ice cream weren’t enough, and gallons of milk were still poured down the ditches or fed to the neighbor’s pigs. When I left, I was relieved that my life would never again be affected by the whims of milk.
By 1974, I had been teaching English for seven years at a suburban Philadelphia high school when, quite by chance, I heard of a temporary assignment managing a town-development project in Helvetia, a remote West Virginia town. I was not really looking for a break from teaching, but I was eligible for a sabbatical. The town-development project seemed a small job, and although it drew on skills I wasn’t sure I had, I thought I could acquire them. In my twenties, I approached most tasks with a how-hard-can-it-be attitude. The job description was vague, and the income seemed iffy. The woman who had started the project five years before, buying and renovating some of the vacant buildings in town, had to leave when she became seriously ill. After that, the buildings stood empty, and the new owner needed someone to help get things up and running. I understood I would be involved in managing and maintaining rental properties, developing a craft collective, and managing a restaurant and small cheese-making operation. In my more cautious middle years, I would not have so enthusiastically embraced such an opportunity, but back then I went for it.
I got the job, applied for the leave, sublet my apartment, and prioritized what I should take along for such an adventure. I hoped I would have time for reading and writing, and a break from the relentless demands of teaching and finishing my master’s. I had worked hard at teaching. Some of the veteran teachers in the school where I taught said I made it harder than I needed to, doing so many separate lesson plans and assigning papers I needed to grade every night. I didn’t spend much time thinking about what the responsibilities of the new position might be, just the freedom it would give me. I would be provided with a place to live, and I would have time. The rest I could certainly work out, and besides, it was only for a year.
I set off on my trip to Helvetia. The turnpike and interstate leg of the trip from Philadelphia went quickly. I packed every available corner of my yellow VW—I called her Buttercup—from floor to ceiling, even the passenger seat. I had scarcely enough space to shift gears. In Virginia, just beyond Staunton, I hit the foothills of the Appalachians, with uphills and downhills and switchbacks and more gear shifting than I had ever done. Just when I thought I might be coming to a straightaway and could finally shift into fourth, there would be another hill, another curve.
The directions I got from my contact in Helvetia were to “go to the end of nowhere, turn left at Mill Creek and go another twenty miles.” The road beyond Mill Creek made the road from Staunton seem like a boulevard. At the base of a hill, the road bent to the right and lead into Helvetia, nestled there in the valley. A hand-lettered sign on a weathered cabin read “Zeit und Raum ist alles.” Time and space is everything.
I drove the short distance to the cottage that was to be my new home. It felt good not to be in motion anymore after the dizzying drive. The brown-shingled cottage looked like it could have been moved from the Swiss Alps and reminded me of the trip I had taken to Switzerland with my sister a couple years before. The shutters and window boxes were painted a soft greenish blue. The space inside felt cozy and comfortable, with low ceilings and afternoon sun streaming through the windows. The unfamiliar furniture, mostly well-worn antique pieces, quickly felt familiar. I carried in the box of books that included, among others, my dictionary, thesaurus, a collection of Emily Dickinson poetry, my favorite Loren Eisley books, and some of the Foxfire series. I set up my stereo and organized my records. I carried in my typewriter and set up a desk space on a sturdy table by the window in the living room, overlooking the backyard.
The new owner of the properties, a woman who had grown up in the area and recently returned to retire, invited me for dinner that first night. She lived just around the corner. Before dinner, we walked around town, and she showed me the restaurant, the craft store, and the cheese house. The power had been turned off, and the buildings closed up for years. They were dark and smelled musty. Windows were dirty, the sills filled with dusty cobwebs and dead flies. It was hard to imagine, but she said all of the spaces were so pleasant when they had been up and running before. The cleaning alone seemed a daunting task, but I could clean. I knew I could clean. We went back to her house for dinner, shared a bottle of wine. She told me her dreams of restoring the town and preserving its heritage. As it was getting dark, I walked back to my new home and continued unpacking before going to bed. I slept well.
Helvetia made the town where I had grown up in rural Pennsylvania, the one I had been so eager to escape, seem like a city. The population of Helvetia and the surrounding farms totaled less than a hundred. Of those hundred, at least half were over seventy years old. In so many ways, living in that cottage in Helvetia made no sense at all, and it felt like absolutely the right thing for me to be doing.
Many of my friends and family visited those first few months. At the time I assumed it was because my calls and letters made the place sound so interesting and exotic. That may have been a part of it, but I have since learned that it was also to check on me. They knew I had worked hard to put myself through college to become a teacher, and, from all reports, I had enjoyed teaching and done it well. Moving to the end of the earth did not seem to fit. What was that about?
From what I have learned since, I can imagine how the conversations may have gone between siblings, aunts and uncles, parents, and friends during that time when so many came to see me.
“How did you think she was?”
“Well, she seemed happy enough, happy as I’ve ever seen her, but that place is primitive. The well was low when we were there, so we had to carry buckets of water from the river to flush the toilet. We brought water from the spring for drinking.”
“I thought she liked teaching. They didn’t let her go, did they?”
“She does like teaching. It’s just a leave. She’s going back in a year.”
“Did she tell you she was writing a book this winter?”
“Just one? Should have time to write a couple. Not much else going on, if you ask me.”
“It’s a sweet little town. Scenic. But it seems more like a museum or a movie set than a real town.”
“And run a cheese factory? All she went through to put herself through college, and now she’s going to make cheese. Makes no sense.”
After they visited, my parents said it reminded them of how things were “back in the day.” A niece and nephew said it was just like Little House on the Prairie. I was happy for the visits, proud to show off my new town and my wilderness independence.
When winter came, the visits slowed and then stopped. Townspeople there told me that “snow and solitude” were what winter was about. It seemed that no one in Helvetia expected that anything would be up and running until spring, but there was lots to do to get ready, and I tackled it a little at a time. Handymen responded slowly to my requests to come check leaky roofs or bad water pipes. Little by little I worked my way down the list I had made of repair and cleaning needs, but I also had lots of time for myself. Every two weeks the bookmobile came through and parked across the street from the store. I checked out stacks of books, spent hours reading. Sitting at my desk by the living room window and watching the snow pile up in the backyard, I worked on the novel I had always planned to write. A friend and I had been talking about our books for years, discussing plots and characters as we shared drinks and dinners. The novel I described to him was set in the suburbs, but when I sat down at my Smith Corona to write that winter, my novel was transplanted to the farm of my childhood. It was a texture far more vivid in my imagination, no matter how hard I had tried to move on.
I walked and taught myself to cross-country ski, exploring back roads and logging trails. I got to know the people and listened to their stories. The snow stacked up higher and higher, and the icicles hanging from the rock ledges on the roadside grew so long they towered over me.
The combination store and post office was the hub of the town, and showing up there once a day was a way of taking attendance, making sure everyone was still all right. Some of the elderly people didn’t like walking to the store if it was snowy or icy, so I would sometimes drop off their mail when the weather was bad. Otherwise, the woman who ran the store and post office did it on her way home after closing. She was happy for my help, and I was glad to drop in and listen to my neighbors’ stories.
Pete Ramsey lived two doors down from the store. I don’t know how old he was but certainly as old as some of the people who didn’t choose to come out when it was snowy. He always came to the store, no matter what the weather. Most days it seemed he lived there, planting himself on one of the chairs by the stove in the middle. Some of the townspeople sat down and chatted with Pete when they came in. It took a long time for Pete to warm up to me. I would smile at him when I went by on the way to get my mail. Sometimes he would look at me from beneath his bushy gray eyebrows, sometimes grunt, sometimes have no reaction at all. I was a little afraid of him. Then gradually Pete seemed to accept that I was all right, and we would talk weather or politics. If there was an unexpected change in the weather, Pete would suggest, “You never know what to expect with the Republicans.” He would mention that he had seen me cleaning at the restaurant or pruning the hedges in front of the Cheese Haus. He seemed bemused by my efforts to beat back the wilderness, and I was never certain if he was laughing at me.
In January, Pete mentioned to me that the sap would soon be running, and he was sure I would want to make maple syrup. I hadn’t thought about it, but of course I wanted to make maple syrup. He said you could buy the taps to drill into the trees, but he knew I would want to whittle my own from willow shoots, the way they used to do it. One day he brought me a handful of willow shoots from his tree out back. He had brought his whittling knife and showed me how to shave off the edge of the shoot and hollow out the soft sap in the middle. I sat down in one of those chairs by the stove to try it myself. He said it would be a few weeks ’til the sap was up, but he would tell me when it was time and show me where the sugar maples were. “Otherwise,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling, “you’ll be drilling into oak trees or telephone poles.” I took the willow taps back to my house and put them in water to keep them moist until it was time to drill holes and tap them into the trees. “Can’t let them dry out,” Pete said, “or they’ll crack, and the sap’ll leak every place but in the bucket.”
That winter I spent a good deal of time with Mary Zickefoose, a gracious and generous town matriarch who had once run the store and post office and still lived in the house attached. She was always busy doing something when I stopped in, sewing or cooking or baking, but had time for anything, it seemed. If I said I wanted to learn to bake bread, she dropped everything, and we made bread. She taught me to make homemade egg noodles before they were called pasta. Many of the things she taught me were things my mother might have taught me if I had accepted she could teach me anything. When I mentioned to Mary that I would like to learn to make a crazy quilt, she pulled out her box of fabric scraps and offered to teach me. I found the piecing easy, but it was more difficult to learn the fancy embroidery stitches needed to cover the seams. She taught me all the stitches she knew—the feather stitch, blanket stitch, cross stitch, wheat stitch, chicken-foot stitch—and she said I could probably make up some of my own.
One afternoon I stopped in to see her after I picked up my mail. She had told me I could just tap on the door that connected the store and her house. She offered me a cup of tea made from the mint she had dried, and we sat at her kitchen table. “So, if I wanted to know about making cheese,” I said, “who could I talk to?”
“Anything about cheese,” Mary said, “you need to go see the Balli girls. They’ve always made the best cheese around. Those three been farming on their own ever since their brother died, and that was years ago.”
“You have their phone number?”
Mary laughed. “Oh, they don’t have a phone.”
She wrote out directions. “When you look at these, you’re gonna think it’s a ways, but it’s really not that far.”
“But shouldn’t I make an appointment?”
“No. They’re used to people coming by. They sell cheese. Spring is when they start making it again, so a few weeks, and I think they should have some ready.”
The days grew longer. Snow on the top of the mountains melted, and water trickling down the hills turned into rushing streams. The icicles on the sides of the roads grew shorter and shorter, then disappeared. The stream that ran in front of my cottage turned into a river.
It was a sunny spring day when I headed out to find the Balli girls. I unfolded Mary’s directions and spread them out on the passenger seat. Beyond Pickens and Turkey Bone, I turned onto unpaved back roads. I steered to straddle muddy ruts and finally found the farm. A small handmade sign hanging on the fence read Balli.
I waited in the car until a woman came out on the porch and calmed the barking German shepherd. She waved, signaled for me to come on in. I was nervous, just dropping in on people I had never met, and I wasn’t sure about the dog.
I went up to the door, and the woman introduced herself as Freda. She invited me inside, where two older women worked at a patchwork quilt stretched on a frame. The Balli girls at the quilt barely looked at me when they said hello. All three of them wore knit slacks and heavy sweaters, even though it was warm with the woodstove in the kitchen. Their hair was gray, and they had simple, short haircuts, all similar. It looked as if they might have taken turns cutting each other’s hair every now and then. The Balli girls looked sturdy enough, but I was surprised they were still doing farm work on their own. A small black-and-white television sat on a shelf in the corner across from where they were quilting. They were watching a soap opera, and the reception was so poor that all of the actors had shimmering shadows.
I glanced around the room at the furniture, which in another context might have been called antique. In that place it just felt like furniture.
“How can we help you today?” Freda said.
“I wondered if you have any cheese on hand,” I said. “Mary Zickefoose told me you sometimes sell it.”
“We sure do. Started up making it again just last month. First ones are just getting ready. Come down here to the basement with me and pick one out.”
I followed Freda down the steep basement stairs. She pulled the chain to turn on the light, a single bulb suspended from the rafter. A series of screened shelves hung from the ceiling.
“The ones at that end are the oldest,” she said, pointing to the bottom shelf.
The blocks of cheese were as big as loaves of bread, more cheese than I would usually eat in a year, but Freda didn’t offer to divide it, so I didn’t ask. I took the whole block, the oldest one she had. I knew that age was a good thing with cheese.
We went back upstairs, talked a bit about the weather, about when the ramps, a wild onion that grew in the woods in the area, would be ready. Folks were excited about the coming ramp season and were already making plans for the annual Ramp Festival in a few weeks. They were looking for volunteers to help. I didn’t even know what ramps looked like or where to find them, but I said I would help clean them if someone showed me what to do.
After I paid for my cheese, and it seemed there was nothing left to do but leave, I asked, “So how do you make your cheese?”
With scarcely a pause, Freda said, “All you do is take some milk, heat it up, and add your rennet. After that it’s just time and patience. There’s no hurrying cheese.”
The instructions weren’t a lot to go on, but clearly it was all I was going to get. For the Balli girls, it was the time of day for quilting and soap operas, not cheese making.
I thanked them and left, no more certain how to make cheese than I was before I came.
I drove slowly back to town. When I got home, I cut open the block of cheese and tasted it. It was true. The Balli girls’ cheese was good. It had a mild taste, like a Muenster. I wrapped a piece of it in plastic wrap and took it up to Mary. She was quilting.
“So, did you learn to make cheese?” she asked.
“All you do is heat up some milk. The way I heard it, that’s pretty much all there is to it.”
Mary laughed. “Guess those Ballis don’t want to give away their secrets.”
Melvin, a dairy farmer who lived up on the ridge, heard I might be starting up a cheese-making operation. I ran into him at the store one day, and he said he would be glad to sell me milk. He could spare a couple cans every other day or so, and he would deliver it. He thought his wife, Gladys, would be willing to come down and show me how to make cheese. Now and then, she made it at home, just for the family, had been doing it for years. He thought hers was every bit as good as the Balli girls’.
Cheese making was one of the skills the early Helvetian settlers had brought with them from their Swiss mountain homes. I was sure there were more people than Gladys and the Ballis who could still make it, but no one seemed to want to take on the job of running the cheese house, so I decided to get things going on my own. I called Gladys, and we chose a day to have her come down. She was clear that she had time to teach me, but not to be the regular cheese maker.
I had done some cleaning in the Cheese Haus months before, but there were fresh cobwebs. I needed to do a thorough cleaning. I scrubbed the shelves, the floor, cleaned the copper kettle with vinegar and salt, soaked the dried-out wooden utensils.
One morning Melvin dropped off Gladys and two cans of milk. She was a patient teacher, guiding me through the steps of cheese making. She answered my questions, and I took notes. First we heated the milk slowly in the big copper kettle until it reached ninety degrees. It took a long time to heat thirty gallons of milk, and Gladys was insistent that we not turn the burner up under the copper kettle.
“You’ve got to keep that burner on low,” Gladys said. “If you scorch the milk, the cheese is ruined.”
When the milk was warm, we mixed in the dissolved rennet and left it to set. It was a slow process, and Gladys and I ran out of things to talk about. While the milk cooled and the curd set, Gladys walked up the street to see her mother-in-law. I pulled some weeds in the bed outside the Cheese Haus.
When we both got back, we removed the cover from the copper kettle. The watery whey was already separating from the gelled curd.
“What is rennet?” I asked Gladys, when I saw the effect of adding it to the milk.
“It’s what separates the curds from the whey,” she said.
Only years later, when I had the chance to research it, did I learn that rennet was an enzyme derived from the lining of a cow’s stomach and that the discovery of cheese may well have been a lucky accident. It seems some shepherd thousands of years ago may have poured milk into a bladder made from a cow’s stomach. After he wandered about for a time, he discovered that the sloshing milk had separated into curds and whey.
Gladys showed me how to cut the curds with the long wooden knife, and then it was time to heat it slowly again, this time to a hundred and twenty degrees. Then we cooled it, stirring it constantly to separate the curds and whey, mixing it with our hands, feeling for the bigger curds and gently breaking them. We drained off the whey, dipped out the curds and pressed them into wooden molds lined with cloth. We put brick weights on the cheese blocks and left them to drain. In a couple days the cheeses were dry enough to take from the molds, and then it was all about turning and rubbing and aging, moving the blocks of cheese down the shelves to make way for more, and waiting.
The restaurant opened in late May, just on weekends at first, and then every day but Monday, when I made the long drive to Elkins for supplies. The woman who had cooked when it was opened years before was happy to come back, glad to be able to earn money to supplement her husband’s black-lung benefits. She knew the health inspector’s rules and had her hairnets and refrigerator thermometers in place. Local high-school and college students applied to be waitresses. I filled in waiting tables, cooking, or washing dishes. On the mornings I made cheese, while the curd was setting, I went out into the woods or fields to pick fresh wildflowers for arrangements on the tables. There was a limited menu and only ten tables, but there was a steady flow of customers all summer. They stopped on their way to camp at one of the state parks or drove over the mountains for a day trip. Local people chose to eat at the restaurant for special occasions. The grilled-cheese sandwich on homemade bread, with a side of home fries and heated applesauce blended with horseradish, was one of the most popular dishes. No matter what the dish, we always served a piece of Helvetia cheese, sometimes with a slice of fruit, berries, or fresh vegetables. I had tried putting a wildflower on the plates with the cheese, but the cook was insistent that if you couldn’t eat it, it should never be on a plate.
Through the summer, cheese making went on with meditative regularity. During that time I often woke to the sound of milk cans clanging, a sound familiar from my childhood. I made cheese every other day, blocks of it. Gladys filled in now and then. When word got out that there was cheese available, there was no problem selling it.
During the months I tended my cheeses, the flavor changed with the season as Melvin’s cows changed their diet. It may have been something in the milk, or maybe the humidity of dog days creeping into the refrigerated curing room. Whatever it was, it caused the cheese bacteria to grow in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. Blocks of cheese were bloated and misshapen, with oozing air pockets inside. I asked Gladys about it, and she told me it just happened sometimes. I doubted it ever happened to the Balli girls. One evening at dusk I loaded the failed cheeses into my car, drove up beyond the cemetery, and flung them from the side of the road, over the rhododendrons and into the darkening woods.
A few weeks later, feeling guilty, I hiked down into the woods to look for the cheeses I feared might still be there. I walked back and forth where I was sure I had thrown them and couldn’t find a trace. The undergrowth had obscured any paw prints or hoof prints that might have given a hint of what creature may have gotten them. I was relieved they were gone. It was as if the bad cheeses had never happened.
During that first year, I learned to weave baskets from honeysuckle vines. I made wine from dandelions, blackberries, and elderberries. I tried unsuccessfully to make beer from hops that grew behind the restaurant, sealing the bottles too quickly and causing a chain reaction explosion up and down the basement stairs. For all the effort, the maple syrup I tried to make never reached the right consistency. I beat back the kudzu and multi-flora rose that seemed ever-encroaching on the buildings. Some days it felt to me as if I were living the life of a pioneer woman, a way of life far more primitive than that of the “farmer’s wife” I had once sworn I would never be. I chose to stay in Helvetia for another year, resigning from my teaching position and giving up my apartment. I settled in for another winter and once again opened the restaurant and cheese house in the spring.
Now, so many years later, I am still not sure I understand what my Helvetian interlude was about. I approached that time with no Thoreau-like intention of going to the woods “because I wished to live deliberately.” To say that it was about needing a break feels too simplistic, although my initial intent was probably not so different from what my mother felt when she was hoeing corn in the hot summer sun and went to the shade under the tree at the end of the row for what she called “a breather.” It was a breather, and it did give me time and space to live more deliberately, but it was more than that. What I intended as a brief detour took me on a new path.
No other two years have changed the course of my life quite so dramatically, and I would like to understand how such an improbable thing came about. But there is also a part of me that appreciates the mystery of things happening as they are meant to, if one gives them the time and space.
I can imagine there may have been new conversations among friends and family who wondered what happened to my ambition after my time in Helvetia. I never returned to high-school teaching, let alone going on for a PhD so I could teach at the college level. My subsequent career in human services gave me opportunity to again be involved in education, and I hope I made differences for clients during all those years, but I was more intent on helping them create circumstances so they could make their own differences. My goals and ambitions became much more modest. Slowly I came to realize that for me, the true art of a life is in the sheer living of it, learning whatever I can from the people and experiences I encounter.
I have no illusions that I made lasting changes in that place that so changed my life’s direction. I hope some of the cedars I planted next to the Cheese Haus have taken hold. And I hope the rhododendrons I moved from up on the ridge and planted behind the restaurant, probably violating a state law, have grown into the dramatic bank of color I envisioned. Most of the people I knew when I lived in Helvetia are now gone—the Balli girls, Mary Zickefoose, Pete Ramsey, and all the rest. I see the obituaries in the church newsletter I receive each year. Most of them were in their nineties when they died. I know I couldn’t have stayed there, but those people and my experiences in that place taught me lessons in watching and waiting—for the icicles to melt, for the curds to separate from the whey, for the cheese to age—an appreciation of all those things there is no hurrying.
Mary Alice Hostetter has had work published in the Gettysburg Review and Prime Number. She edited The Measure of a Life: Diaries of a Mennonite Farm Wife 1920–2000, a collection of entries from her mother’s diaries. Currently she is completing a fiction project through Queens University’s One Book Semester program. She lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Zeit und Raum” appears in our Autumn 2014 issue.