TRENTON, Maine ― Joanne Sargent might tell you that she works across the street from The Cheese House and grew up in Sullivan, east of The Cheese House.
That’s how well known a landmark The Cheese House is in this Hancock County town, though you could be forgiven for being utterly mystified as to what exactly the 70-year-old Ellsworth resident would be referring to.
The Cheese House, you see, is an urban legend hiding in plain sight.
Today, the building at Route 3 and Jordan River Road is home to a Harley-Davidson clothing store that opens during the tourist season and is closed the rest of the year. But back in the 1970s, the store was best known for three things: It was shaped like a great big yellow cheese wheel with a chunk cut out of it, it had a giant mouse atop its roof, and Ellsworth High School students would steal the mouse every year and put it on the roof of their school as a prank.
And it was the landmark that everybody knew.
John Moore, an Ellsworth City Council member who taught history at the city’s high school from 1973 to 2002, said that authorities in those days regarded the prank the kids played as harmless.
“In the beginning, the principal would call the owner of the store and say, ‘We have your mouse,’” Moore recalled Friday. “Eventually, the guy would call the school and say, ‘do you have my mouse?’”
None of its goofy history is readily apparent from a glance at building, whose latest owner, Central Maine Harley-Davidson, moved in about four years ago. Previous owners have added a second floor, peaked roof and windows, and a small, boxy addition on the east side of its ground floor since the specialty-cheese store closed in the 1980s. It is now shingled and painted red, all of this effectively masking much of the building’s rounded shape and cheesy history.
“But everybody who has been here long enough to remember it still calls it The Cheese House,” said Sargent, a sales manager across the road at Coastal Builders at 393 Bar Harbor Road, the local name for that section of Route 3. “Nobody’s really forgotten that. How could they? It was a go-to place for many years because it was so unique.”
According to the digital archive at the Southwest Harbor Public Library, the Trenton building was among 18 cheese-shaped New England locations, a chain of stores that disbanded in the late 1970s. Made primarily of wood, the building was 9 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter.
Owned by Alex A. and Bernice Albin, the Trenton store closed in 1984. Only two of the distinctly styled buildings are left, the archive states.
Competition from big-box grocery stores that added specialty cheeses to their delis helped push the store out of business, said Holly Macomber, a Bar Harbor resident and graduate of Ellsworth High’s class of 1973. Prior to that, grocers carried American cheese and maybe a few other types — basic deli stuff, Macomber said.
And the pranks, which occurred over the course of about 10 years, began because of a similar lack of variety. High schoolers at the time had nothing like the number of recreational activities they have today, Macomber said.
“There was nothing to do back then. You used to just ride around,” she said.
About the size of a man, the mouse was a tempting, though difficult target. Up to that point, students at Ellsworth High had been pranking their school by stealing a giant stuffed bear from a local sporting goods store, Moore said.
“The bear wasn’t quite as versatile as The Cheese House mouse,” Moore said.
The mouse “was bolted to the roof. You had to get up there and have some tools, and you had to hope there were no cars on the road when you did it,” Macomber recalled.
Although it was briefly a hot dog restaurant and a deli before the Harley folks moved in, once the cheese shop closed, the building apparently endured decades of disuse — still a better end than the mouse seems to have faced.
The fact is, the mouse seems to have disappeared, and those who remember it debate its fate. Some, like Macomber, believe the mouse was broken by one of its thieves as it was mouse-napped and never returned to the school.
“My inkling is that the mouse is in someone’s camp, garage, in an attic; ‘down cellah,’ in a family room as a conversational piece; in a barn, was burned ― no evidence ― or chucked into the woods somewhere,” she said.
Moore said the mouse fell into disrepair but was disposed of by its owner after the school returned it.
Macomber said she approached several people who she believes were responsible for its final theft, but none of them copped to it.
If so, that’s a shame, said Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane, a member of Ellsworth High’s class of 1973, who dismissed the idea that anybody could face criminal charges so many years later.
“Oh, hell no. You couldn’t even find a victim at this point,” Kane said. “With the statute of limitations, it wouldn’t make any sense to charge anybody, and if it got returned, which I think it did, there would be no crime anyway.”
According to state law, Kane said, theft occurs when there’s an intent to deprive, a difficult thing to prove under these circumstances.
“It’s urban lore at this point,” Kane said. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you what happened to it.”