The big cheese

The big cheese

For Swiss immigrants Ernest and Gertrude Stalder, 1937 was an important year. Not only was their son John born, but a new rural electric cooperative began powering their business, Pearl Valley Cheese, in eastern Coshocton County. “Getting electricity was a turning point for our family,” says John Stalder, “because my parents could modernize their cheese house and use refrigeration.”

Pearl Valley Cheese still occupies the same country property off St. Rte. 93 where Ernest began making Swiss cheese in a small stone building in 1928. Back then, he heated milk from nearby dairy farms in a single copper kettle that yielded one 200-pound wheel of Swiss cheese a day. Today, Pearl Valley Cheese is a sprawling, technologically up-to-date factory producing 40,000 to 45,000 pounds of Swiss and colby cheeses per day. It still gets electricity from a cooperative — The Frontier Power Company — and continues to be owned and operated by Stalder family members. The general manager, Kurt Ellis, is Ernest’s great-grandson (he also serves on Frontier Power’s board of trustees).

The second and third generations of the Stalder family of cheesemakers: John Stalder and Chuck Ellis stand behind Grace Stalder and Sally

The second and third generations of the Stalder family of cheesemakers: John Stalder and Chuck Ellis stand behind Grace Stalder and Sally

A display inside the shop shows Stalder family photos and Pearl Valley Cheese memorabilia.
A selection of cheeses fills the Pearl Valley Cheese display case.

For the Stalders, cheese is more than a business — it’s a lifestyle that has endured for four generations. John and his wife, Grace, took over the factory during the 1960s, and though they’re now octogenarians, they lend a hand there practically every day. The couple also raised four daughters — Ruth Ann, Sally, Heidi, and Trudy — who, along with their spouses and offspring, have helped to make cheese and run the plant in various ways over the years.  

“Sally and I work at Pearl Valley Cheese every day,” says Chuck Ellis, who is Sally’s husband and the company’s current president. The Ellises have been involved in Pearl Valley Cheese since 1987 and are the third generation of the family to reside in the frame house next to the factory.  

Since Pearl Valley Cheese is about halfway between Sugarcreek and Coshocton, its on-site retail store is a destination for locals as well as visitors to Ohio’s Amish Country and Historic Roscoe Village. The factory makes 14 varieties of natural cheese, and bestsellers include their signature Mild Swiss, which won a gold medal at the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest; Lacey Swiss, a reduced-fat and reduced-sodium cheese; and colby,         a semi-hard orange cheese. 

While Super Hot Jumping Jack with ghost peppers is one of its newest cheeses, Pearl Valley also makes an Emmentaler Old World Swiss. Emmentaler is Switzerland’s definitive cheese, and in the United States, Swiss-born cheesemakers like Ernest produced versions of it that Americans dubbed Swiss cheese. “Our Emmentaler has a bolder flavor profile than Swiss cheese,” says Chuck. “It’s made with a starter culture from Europe, and as far as I know, we’re the only U.S. cheese factory using that culture.”  

Because east-central Ohio’s climate and rolling terrain are similar to Switzerland’s Emmental Valley, Sugarcreek — aka Ohio’s “Little Switzerland” — became a center for both Swiss culture and cheese production. In the early 1900s, the Sugarcreek area had about 60 cheese houses operated by immigrants whose skills and hard work made Swiss cheese synonymous with the Buckeye State. Presently only a dozen or so Ohio plants manufacture Swiss cheese, but they create more of it — some 150 million pounds annually — than any place in the country. “Ohio is the biggest Swiss cheese producer in the U.S.,” notes Chuck. “It makes about 48% of the nation’s Swiss cheese.”  

On Wednesdays, Pearl Valley Cheese also offers free factory tours that begin at the store and end in its shipping facility. Customers are welcome to have a snack at the picnic pavilion just outside the store, and there’s also a small playground for children. Store employees gladly slice samples to taste and even provide serving suggestions. “We try to make things nice for customers because they support us year after year,” says Chuck. “We do a customer appreciation event every summer and always have a bounce house to encourage them to bring their kids.” 

Pearl Valley Cheese, 54760 Twp. Rd. 90, Fresno, OH 43824. Open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. M–F and 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturdays. 740-545-6002;