Founder of Cypress Grove and a pioneer in American cheesemaking, Mary Keehn is living proof that if you follow your heart and work really (really) hard- you can turn that labor of love into a way to support your family and in her case, a whole community. But this story is more than an entrepreneurial tale of hard work and passion - it’s about guts and grit. It’s about taking the road less traveled….and in Mary’s case, the road to California.
In 1968 after attending the infamous DNC in Chicago, Mary packed up her VW van and headed west. She landed in Sonoma, California with a dream of living off the land with her four daughters. Their home was next to a cow dairy owned by a family who kept wild goats on the property for brush control. One day she asked the woman next door if she could buy one of the goats to provide milk for her girls. She replied, “Honey, if you can catch 'em, you can have 'em.” So Mary put grain in her hands and tried to coax them for days. Eventually they came closer and closer until she was able to grab one by the horns. She brought two goats home – her daughters named them Hazel and Esmeralda.
In the early 70's Mary moved with her girls and the two alpine goats to an 80-acre piece of land in Humboldt County. There she built a 16'x 16' cabin near the woods. They sourced water from a spring, harvested food from their garden, made their own soap and even sewed their own clothes. This was some real hippie stuff – a true back-to-the-land lifestyle.
As time went on and her daughters got a little older, Mary became their 4-H leader and her love for these animals deepened. She joined the Humboldt County Goat Association and began showing and breeding. At one point, she had 50 goats - milking them by hand daily. And as you can imagine, this was more milk than they could use at home, so neighbors would leave jars for her to fill and eventually she began experimenting with cheesemaking. She used yogurt for her first cultures and had no formal training in dairy science or cheesemaking. At first Mary gave the cheese away but, eventually, people began to pay for it. Soon there was a local restaurant owner that wanted to carry the product if she ever started a "legit" operation and come 1983, Cypress Grove was born.
Now, before 1980 Americans weren’t making goat cheese, and there were only a dozen or so types that came from France, which were called chèvres. The same year that Cypress Grove was founded, the American Cheese Society was created and formed this awesome community for these trailblazers to connect and become friends. I imagine Mary Keehn, Allison Hooper (Vermont Creamery) and Judy Schad (Capriole) all just hanging out and talking shop. (so. rad.) I mean, these women are huge players in American cheese history and can be credited for launching what is now the widespread acceptance of goat cheese in American food culture. Pretty incredible stuff.
In the early 90's, looking for inspiration and wanting to understand more about the process, Mary and Judy (Schad) flew to France. They spent time with cheesemakers all over the country and on the plane ride home, Mary had a dream about cheese. She dreamt about a goat cheese that echoed the thick white fog that settled along the coastline in her native Humboldt. Enter Cypress Grove’s signature product - Humboldt Fog.
Today, Mary is a full-time grandmother and still involved in the business. Cypress Grove is still in Humboldt County, too. It’s located in a beautiful little town called Arcata, on the northern edge of California’s coastline, where the Redwoods meet the sea. The original creamery has grown to a larger facility with the addition of their very own dairy, just down the road. They are especially proud of this dairy, and rightfully so, having scored 100% on their Humane Certification. But all scores aside, this dairy farm is one of the prettiest pieces of land a goat could dream of living on… I kid you not.
[come on…you know I couldn’t end part 1 without at least one goat pun.]
Stay tuned for PART 2 where we visit their magical dairy farm by the sea and learn a thing or two about cheesemaking.
words + video by Rebecca Simms, Creative Director
photo courtesy of Cypress Grove
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