The new St. Albert Cheese Factory built in 2014 has continued a 125 year tradition within the community and has prevailed despite a devastating fire in 2013. Van Dusen photo
ST. ALBERT – Not everybody in the downcast crowd, that dismal day, believed former manager Rejean Ouimet when he stood among the ruins of the old St. Albert Cheese Factory and pledged that the co-op business and cultural institution would rise again.
The challenge looked impossible on that day in the winter of 2013 with the fire-ravaged factory still smouldering and tons of cheese melted into nothingness; but what Ouimet promised came to pass.
The board of directors, employees, in fact the entire community rallied and, by 2014, the factory was back like never before just in time for the 120th anniversary. Community support has always been what “keeps us alive”, said Ouimet who still works part-time at his beloved cheese plant.
Marching forward as never before, Canada’s oldest francophone co-operative is recognizing 125 years of operation in 2019. Dating back to 1894, the operation started as a small village milk processor founded by first president Louis Genier and nine partners who could have hardly imagined then that their venture would shape history for an entire community.
A $30-million processing plant, observation deck, mini-museum, retail shop and restaurant stands proudly where the old factory was located. At 76,000 square-feet, the replacement facility is 30 per cent larger than the one destroyed by fire; one wall has been used to commemorate the founding partners.
Providing some 180 jobs adding up to an annual payroll of $10-million, the factory has returned to its role as a vital part of the region’s economy with products sold on site and in more than 2,000 other locations in Ontario and Quebec.
The complex is a major tourist attraction luring thousands of visitors every year to watch activity on the production floor from the observation deck, sit down for a helping of poutine heaped with squeaky-fresh St. Albert curds, enjoy an ice cream cone, or pickup packaged cheese to go in the shop which also contains a wide array of other specialty food and gift items. Annual sales keep climbing and are about $40-million.
Now it’s time to celebrate the 125th anniversary. The co-op is already off to a good start as host every August of the St. Albert Curd Festival which fills the village to overflowing with up to 50,000 fans of the combination of exhibits and concerts; this year, the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Adding to the festival excitement this time out, Francois Latour and his team will take a run at reclaiming the Guinness World Book title for most antique threshing mills operating in unison for 15 minutes. Latour is committed to having up to 200 working threshers at the festival, easily enough to snatch the record back from the Manitoba group which took it away from him three years ago.
May 19 in conjunction with the co-op, the threshing record organizing committee is presenting the RCMP Musical Ride on the factory grounds; admission is $10 and the show starts at 2 p.m. Special events will continue throughout the year.