At Calef’s, Everyone
Knows Who Cut the Cheese
Story and Photos By Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer
Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
Joel Sherburne is the answer to the timeless question, “Who cut the cheese?”
For 60 years, the quick-witted gentleman with the “aw, shucks” manner has been preparing the cheddar at Calef’s Country Store in Barrington, a Granite State institution that has been providing victuals and necessaries to Granite Staters since Ulysses S. Grant was president.
A raconteur, philosopher and sometimes comedian, Sherburne has been working at Calef’s since 1957, a milestone celebrated by the store and its employees earlier this month on Sept. 7.
“I guess you could say I’m an institution within an institution. It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he said during a short break from the cheese station.
Sherburne is currently enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, and the spotlight seems to suit him. His career and Calef’s are being celebrated in “Sixty Years of Cuttin’ the Cheese,” a paperback book by Rebecca Rule. “If anyone said five years ago that a book would be written about me I would have said, go fish,” he said.
Sherburne began working at the store when he was a 16-year-old student at Dover High School. He has worked there ever since.
“My aunt would drop me off after school and my father would pick me up after work,” he said. “I loved it then and I love it now.”
That was in 1957 when Eisenhower was president, “Jailhouse Rock,” “You Send Me” and “Walkin’After Midnight” were hit songs, a loaf of bread cost 19 cents and a stamp cost three.
“Way back then I knew everyone who came in. It was the central place in town for information. If somebody died or another event took place we’d know it right away.”
Calef’s, which is celebrating its 148th anniversary, still has the ambience of an old-time country store. Shelves of jellies, jams and breads line the walls. There is a candy room filled with glass jars of Tootsie Rolls, Mary Janes, Malo Cups, Satellite Wafers, all-day suckers and other old-fashioned confections. A deli counter lined with cold cuts is framed by barrels of pickles marked dill and sour.
“It hasn’t changed much, and that’s what I like,” said Sherburne. Especially the cheese.
Calef’s imports 35-to-40-pound cheese wheels from Vermont and upstate New York. There are cheddars aged on-site – wicked sharp, extra sharp, super sharp and rat trap, the store’s creamy specialty.
“There used to be a line backed up all the way to the front door,” said Sherburne. “People would ask for a chunk, a piece or a slice and I had to figure out what they meant. So, I standardized the measures. A chunk is now one pound, a slice is a little over half a pound and a piece is a pound and a quarter,” he said. “Oh golly, I don’t just cut the cheese. I weigh it and package it and oversee the aging. Some of our cheddar is aged six years. It’s so sharp, it’ll set you back a week.”
He says there is a Calef’s secret process of aging. “Over the years people have tried to get it out of me, but they’ve been unsuccessful,” he said.
Sherburne has watched as the store has morphed from just a local purveyor to a store that also attracts many a tourist.
“We even have bus tours sometimes,” he said. “I can tell from the expressions on some of their faces that the place brings back memories.”
A cornpone philosopher and comedian for many years, Sherburne was the announcer at the Rochester Fair, where he also did a stand-up comedy routine billed as Country Joel.
“I sang and told jokes and had a running gag where I’d take the microphone backstage and keep saying ‘Is it time for me to go on yet?’ John Penny liked me so much he wanted me to on tour with him and his country band.”
He also has his serious side, an EMT, he founded the Barrington Ambulance Service and was president of the town’s historical society.
Sherburne still comes in to work at 5 a.m.
“I come in by myself and get the store ready. I get the coffee going and get the cheese station set up so everything is ready when the others come in,” he said. “I love it. It’s really quiet.”
He recently cut his work schedule back from seven days to five days a week. “I try to go with the flow,” he said.
And through it all he has a smile on his face and a joke at the ready. When asked if he ever married, the 76-year-old doesn’t miss a beat, “Never. Why do you think I’m so happy?”
Sherburne said like him, “about every kid in town has worked at Calef’s.” And hence nearly every kid has been introduced to his infamous “bag stretcher.”
“When a customer buys a little too much to fit in one bag, we tell the new kid to go out in the back room and get the bag stretcher,” he said. “When they come back and say they can’t find it, we send them out back again. Of course, there is no such thing as a bag stretcher, but we don’t let them in on the joke until the third time.”