History of the 19th Century Herkimer County Cheese Industry, by Nan Ressue

History of the 19th Century Herkimer County Cheese Industry, by Nan Ressue

Herkimer County’s claim to 19th century fame centered upon the cheese business. Weekly open air markets were held at Little Falls New York where farm wagons crowded the intersection of Ann and Albany Streets to haggle over prices with the many dealers present. These Monday markets set the national and international cheese prices in the third quarter of the 19th century.

The sturdy Germans of the 18th century German Palatinate supplied the original agriculturally oriented population of Herkimer County. Arriving in middle Mohawk Valley in 1725, the “German Flatts” near Herkimer New York soon became synonymous with successful farming as the early settlers cleared the land on Mohawk River’s banks and uplands. Many 19th century fortunes were made as a result of successful alliances with agriculture: its products, processes, and the resulting trade.

Herkimer County, New York, developed a diversified type of farm with wheat, barley, and peas its principal agricultural exports circa 1800. Adverse weather conditions and newly available canal transportation brought radical change to this farming region in the following decade. The old Erie Canal brought western New York State grains to Albany and New England two weeks before the local crops were ready to harvest. Cheap western land and a higher annual yield resulted in a business with which New York. farmers could not compete, many families experiencing financial ruin. Devastating weather conditions in 1816, the year with no summer, brought blizzards in July which destroyed the traditional crops. Grass was the only successful crop of the season. Farmers who turned to grazing and the butter/cheese business found it lucrative in most instances.1

The early cheese business was a home industry involving simple tools and primitive conditions. Open air milking, wooden tubs and curd knives produced a curd which was worked with bare hands and transferred to a log press. These small cheeses were packed in small casks for shipment.2

Among the wave of Yankees coming to post Revolutionary Mohawk Valley from New England in the 1790s was Jonathan Burwell who had moved from Sheffield Massachusetts to Burrell’s Corners, Salisbury, Herkimer County, New York .With his son Harry, he soon was involved in the dairy business making butter and cheese as well as acting as an agent for neighboring farmers. In 1826, young Harry decided to enlarge his dealership, offering competition to the Ferris and Nesbit dealership which had a dishonest reputation. Commissioned by the Salisbury producers to sell their make in New York City, arrangements were made to cart the cheese to Albany and float it down river to New York After a winter’s work, he returned home to distribute the profits among the producing farmers .Motivated by local success, Harry Burrell gradually enlarged his local dealership to include cheese shipments to Philadelphia (B&B Cooper, 1828; Jonathan Palmer, 1830,1832) and buying cheese in Vermont and Massachusetts. At the suggestion of Erastus Corning of Albany, he opened the cheese trade with England in 1830-32, the initial transaction involving 10,000 pounds. H Burrell and Company expanded until Harry was storing 60,000-70,000 boxes of cheese in New York over the winter season. The money generated by this business as a result of an honest reputation was invested in farm real estate in Herkimer County area.3

Harry Burrell’s reputation as a commission salesman in the metropolitan area was to serve as a model for his son, David H. Burrell who became a multimillionaire and respected philanthropist in Little Falls,


A diary of the Thompson Family, 1855, Salisbury farmers in Herkimer County, gives a glimpse into the activities of the cheese producing individual:

March 6, 1855

“…Mr Northrup (storekeeper) let me have 35 dollars more on a note given for cheese together with 250 received last Saturday amounts to $230 more…”

March 9

“…made cheese this morning the first this spring March 23

March 23

“…Went this morning and carried the cheese press to corners to have it mended…”

March 24

“…brought the cheese press from the corners Mr. Parker charged $1.50 for fixing it…

April 9

“…Went to the Center (Salisbury Center) to see Mr Northrup about buying cheese. We will give 10and ½ cents per pound up until the first of June…”

May 25

“…Went to the Falls with cheese, 11 of Smith’s and 9 of ours…”

June 20

“…Went to the Falls with 9 cheeses for myself and 11 for Smiths. Mine waid (sic) 249 pounds…” 5


Jessie Williams, Cheese Factory Pioneer (1851)    

The introduction of the factory system could easily be called the most important factor in the development of Herkimer County’s cheese business into a multimillion dollar industry. The concept was born on Jessie William’s farm near Rome, New York where the owner was encouraged by his family and neighbors to include their milk with his when he made cheese. Successful, consistently high quality products led him to gradually give up farming and turn to professional cheesemaking. Milk cans brought to the Williams’ farm were weighed, dumped into a receiving vessel and the farmer credited for their delivery.The milk flowed through tin tubing to the receiving vat where it was heated and the curd produced. The finished curd was placed in tin hoops and squeezed in the screw press, later to be stored in a separate building for ageing. Whey was siphoned off and piped to an outside pasture where it was fed to the hogs. Williams paid 5 ½ cents per pound for the cheese produced and sold the complete make (6) to Parker and Mudge, local Rome dealers for 7 ½ cents

Many potential cheese factory owners came To Rome to learn William’s methods where he generously shared his expertise with all. After ten years in the business, his reputation for high quality enabled him to sell cheeses as far west as Iowa and in Europe. By 1869, there were 500 cheese factories operating in New York State using Jessie William’s methods   7

Avery and Ives, Newport, was one of the first cheese factories to be established in Herkimer County.7


Typical contacts between factories and buyers are represented by F.W. Stebbins letters to the Ives factory, Salisbury, NY owned and transcribed by the late Dorothea Ives, a relative of these early businessmen. Other cheese buyers active in Herkimer County between 1850-60 were Benjamin Silliman and Lorenzo Caryl (Salisbury), Benjamin V.S. Kenyon (Middleville), A.H.Buel (Fairfield)and Samuel Perry (Newport), Simeon Osborne (Herkimer) and Samuel Perry (Newport), the last making an unsuccessful attempt to corner the county cheese market in this period. As factories were born and reputations for high quality established, the best known received their orders directly from England. Old Fairfield, Newville, Eatonville, and Babcock’s Newport factories were among these chosen few. 8


In 1860, Sam Perry’s attempts to corner the market unfortunately relied on “long credits”. This system involved a small initial payment to the farmer for his cheese and the balance paid off in January after the cheese was sold. The poor quality cheese produced that year combined with the problems of the approaching Civil War forced him into bankruptcy. The next year found the farmers and the buyers understandably anxious to sell their cheese make on short credits or cash, and, to facilitate this began meeting in Little Falls, New York on Mondays at the corner of Ann and Albany Streets to sell small lots. All cheeses offered at the curb side market were completely cured and ready to sell. Buyers would take sample borings and competitive bidding commenced. This lively, local market grew in size and activity at an astonishing rate. 9

Journal and Courier, Little Falls, NY: July 13, 1865

“The largest amount of cheese ever received in this village in one day was on Monday. As early as six o’clock in the morning, nearly a hundred teams had arrived at the depot and formed themselves in line. During the morning, there was considerable excitement among the buyers, prices averaging a little higher than the week before. Early in the day, it became apparent that it would impossible to weigh all the cheeses and many farmers concluded to store their loads and go home. The stored cheese was delivered on Tuesday, the shipments of two days being 4299 boxes almost all of which was sold and paid for on Monday…Mr. Henry Priest was the freight agent and every cheese was rolled unto a platform scale set flush with the floor and weighed. The weight was marked on the box with a brush and lamp black. Mathew Thume was the marker and would stand all day at the task in a hole in the floor to be convenient to the task….” 10


Little Falls merchants eagerly offered cheesemaking equipment and supplies to area producers. Farmers and factorymen could buy “no 1 pure annatto, just opened..”(cheese color) at the village drug store and cheese vats, curd cutters, cheese bandages, and cheese presses all available at Burch and Company. Three thousand best quality cheese box tacks could be had at George Ashley’s hardware store in Little Falls 11

By 1866, the Little Falls Cheese Market was exciting editorial comment. The Journal and Courier pleaded with dairymen to keep their wagons off the pedestrian walks and to keep their foolish brawls and quarrels to a minimum 12 Morning business transactions at the Monday markets involved private dairies, those individuals who had withstood the trend toward factory production. The afternoon transactions involved the major business dealings of the day when fifty to one hundred factory men came to market to meet the New York dealers or their agents. Curbstone business was the order of the day. 13


David Hamlin Burrell enters the cheese and dairy business

Harry Burrell included his son David in the family cheese trading business at an early age. This ambitious, intelligent child was allowed to assist his parent during the summer buying months in Herkimer County and in New York City selling cheeses during the winter months. The family often started the season with 60,000 box of cheese in storage. A certain William G. Porter of Philadelphia consistently did his cheese buying with “young Davy”, teaching him valuable business lessons as well as inflating his ego. By age 22, David personally arranged one annual sale of 33,000 boxes of cheese, netting $66,000 and a commission of $1000 for a winter’s work. By age 27, the young salesman owned 25% of H Burrell and Company. In 1868, an English based Burrell company was floundering and David was sent by the company to rescue the business. While on the continent, he visited other cheese makers in the country side to investigate European methods. Upon returning home, he sold out his New York interests and moved to Little Falls, buying out George Ashley’s hardware store with a trusted partner, Rodney S. Whitman in 1868. Burrell and Whitman carried high quality stock and all the latest improvements, many of which being David’s own inventions 14

1870 Cheese Business in Herkimer County

Vigorous, frequent, and successful cheese marketing in Herkimer County eventually resulted in attempts to organize. A February issue of the Journal and Courier advertised a public meeting, the prupose being to organize a Dairy Board of Trade.   15   Officers for the new group included the Honorable Xavier A. Willard, (well known writer and lecturer on dairy topics) , Josiah Skull, corresponding secretary, Watts. T. Loomis recording secretary, and David H. Burrell, treasurer. This Board of Trade soon established an elegant trade room in the Evan’s Hotel ballroom on the northwest corner of Ann and John Streets, Little Falls, open to board members only. Telegraph connections to New York City made it possible to post up to the minute cheese market prices on the trade room’s public board. 17 Upon arriving in Little Falls, each salesman recorded on the board the amount of cheese he had to sell.   Exchange bulletins posted in obvious places quoted the latest market prices in Liverpool, London, and New York. Members of this Dairymen’s Board were both producers and buyers but it was essentially a producers’ organization. Through this system, all parties involved had exactly the same information, an arrangement termed “perfect” by Horatio Seymour at the Ninth Annual Dairymens’ convention. Utica soon followed the example of this pioneer association at Little Falls, establishing trade rooms at Bagg’s Hotel in the heart of the city. 18.

Cheese shipped by canal or railroad from Herkimer County was received in New York City by the Butter and Cheese Exchange. In 1875, the organization’s executive committee appointed a Mr. William Hardy as the official weigher, his selection endorsed by the Cheese Receivers’ Association of New York. Five cheeses or 10% of each lot were tested by him a charge of 25 cents per lot levied upon the receiver. 19   Rules adopted by the New York Produce Exchange in 1877 reflect an involvement in the cheese trade:

“The president shall appoint a cheese committee to solve problems and enforce rules. A fee of $15 will be charged for each case heard.

The seller can demand payment at the time of passing title. The buyer must have ample time to examine the product and is required to pay the cartage.

The buyer shall have 48 hours to weigh and inspect the cheeses. Cheese “to arrive” must be accepted or rejected within 24 hours

Cheese weights must be tested by a regularly appointed weigher

`                 Weigher’s fees will be paid by the seller.

Not less than 5 boxes or 10% shall be a test.

Overweights may be used to offset short weights within an individual factory but not between factories.

A charge of 2 cents per box will be charged for cooperage.” 20


Prices quoted for cheese in the “Late Dairy Reports”, Journal and Courier newspaper, Little Falls,list amounts paid for large and small whites, large and small colored (annatto), and the controversial skimmed milk cheeses. Some of the largest and best known milk product factories were called creameries, differing from the orthodox cheese factory in that butter and cheese were produced from the same milk. Dairymen had seen a tantalizing opportunity to make additional profits with this practice and the trend toward creameries was a definite trend in the 1870s. 21 Burrell and Whitman purchased the Finck’s Basin Cheese Factory Little Falls, for this purpose in 1871. Criticism was frequently showered upon those producing fully or partially skimmed milk cheese . Traditional full cream cheesemakers clamored that this practice would sully Herkimer County’s reputation for fine quality. Green cheese, poor quality cheese, and skim milk cheeses sold under the full cream label   planted the germs of suspicion in the New York and European markets 22

The continued vitality of the cheese market was seen in the many new cheese factories erected in the 1870s. The new Elm Grove Cheese factory built on Henry Mesick’s farm, Town of Danube, Herkimer County was financed by a stock company and boasted of two wooden buildings (25 x 40 and 25 x 35) which contained three vats and twenty four presses and produced an annual average of 100,000 pounds. The cheese producing season usually began in the early spring (see Thompson’s diary) , peaked during the lush grass seasons of June and July, produced the season’s best in September, and finished for the year in the late fall. Dairy conventions were almost always held in January when there was a lull in the trade.23

Industry Supporting the Cheese Business in Herkimer County

Impressive amounts of money was made in auxiliary businesses supporting the lucrative cheese business in Herkimer county. Even a small operation such as Peter C .Casler’s operation in Little Falls, realized a profit by selling ice to dairymen and cheese factories. 24   Whitman and Burrell Dairy Supply advertised heaters, cheese vats, seamless cheese bandages, metal and wooden hoops, one seam milk cans, and Frazier’s Gang Press which pressed twenty cheeses simultaneously.25 Money generated by the cheese business was often invested in real estate which resulted in large numbers of tenant farms. Operating on what was called the 2/5 system, the landlord furnished the land, the cows, and received 3/5 of the butter and cheese receipts. The tenant furnished the team, the tools, and did all the work for 2/5 of the dairy receipts. Profits from grains and vegetables were farmed equally.26

Many county cheese box factories were also in existence during this boom period ( 1860-1880). A typical cheese/cheese box factory relationship can be seen in the 1868 Herkimer County atlas, p 8. Brockett Bridge Cheese Factory and Ingham Mills Cheese Box factory are separated by only a few miles. Michigan’s Detroit river area supplied Elm timber for knock down cheese boxes, the lumber being cut from property owned by David Burrell, Little Falls, New York. Shipping up to a million boxes a year, this business continued for many years until the elms were exhausted. 27

D.H.Burrell in partnership with his brother Edward, experimented with ensilage techniques which were aimed at improving the cows’ diet which would result in higher milk production and greater profits. In 1880, feed produced in three large concrete pits was fed to 200 head of dairy cattle on the Burrell experimental farms with positive results. Shortly thereafter, the Burrell’s were selling ensilage corn seed in their store. 28

One of the most interesting and significant industries which developed as a cheese industry spin-off     was the rennet business. In early days, this unpredictable but necessary ingredient was blamed for many cheese failures due to its lack of uniformity. Originally, rennet was made from a piece of the lining of a calf’s stomach, salted and dried. This homemade product was added to the warmed milk which caused it to clabber, creating “curds and whey”. 29   In 1874, a certain Christian Hansen of Denmark discovered a method which produced a uniform, dependable rennet extract. Although Hansen’s laboratory exhibited their products at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, practically none were sold in this country until a branch office was opened in New York City under Johan Frederickson’s direction. In 1881, arrangements were made whereby the business would move to Little Falls and D.H. Burrell and Co. would be the exclusive agents for Hansen’s products in the United States and Canada. 30 By 1891, Mr. Frederickson had purchased Lock Island in the Mohawk River at Little Falls for $1100 with plans to construct a substantial building for the manufacture of rennet preparations 31


Decline and Death of the Herkimer County Cheese Industry

The late dairy report carried in the Journal and Courier newspaper for sixty years was a dependable index to the health and success of the cheese industry in Herkimer County. Reports of quantities and prices paid at Little Falls, Utica, and New York City set the standard. By 1884, cheese prices in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had been added to this little column in the local paper, indicating an increase in competition. Weather reports had been included over years as well and the drought of 1895 was described in dire terms, a natural disaster which cause the cheese make to shrink by 20%. 32 Private dairy cheese was no longer available at the market by July 1899 according to this report, the listed lots now being sent to grocers and jobbers instead of going to New York City 34

Exports of Canadian cheese increased while United States’ shipments declined, the 1896 ratio being 5:2 Frozen meats exported to England from Australia and New Zealand also contributed to the decline in British cheese consumption, drastically effecting an American English based outlet. Englishmen would obviously prefer mutton to cheese if the prices were the same. 35


By the summer of 1910, the Late Dairy Reports in the Journal and Courier also listed the cheese prices for Wisconsin cheese as higher ()17 cents per pound) than Herkimer County cheese ( 12 and a half cents per pound). Concern over the competing Wisconsin prices caused comment in the newspaper for the next five years. 36   In addition, a delated southern cotton market immediately preceeding World War I resulted in the inability of that area to absorb its usual shipments of Wisconsin cheese. As a consequence, western dairymen decided to ship their make eastward, flooding the New York market and underselling Herkimer County.

Research underlines the role of WWI condensaries as a critical factor in the death of the Herkimer County cheese business. During the conflict when Europe was demanding a vast supply of American milk products, the condensed milk business experienced unprecedented growth. This product’s manufacture was based on a procedure invented by Gail Bordon, circa 1851. 38 Milk was diverted from cheese factories into condensaries and production pushed to a peak to meet the needs of the troops. Producers hoped fruitlessly that Europe’s demands would continue into the reconstruction period. Cheese factories which had been closed or converted into condensaries produced an enormous stockpile of condensed products which produced a fraction of the expected profit. The gradual development of the fluid milk market with the advent of tank trucks was an additional deciding factor. 39



No Little Falls Cheese for Sale

Journal and Courier, Little Falls

October 19, 1920


  1. Benton, Nathaniel, The History of Herkimer County, pp. 208-210
  2. George, Judge, The History of Herkimer County, p. 121
  3. , p.121
  4. Autobiography of David Hamlin Burrell, supplied by his granddaughter Mrs. Edwin Fisher, 676 East Main Street, Little Falls, NY
  5. Thompson Family Diary, Thompson Road, Salisbury, NY supplied by Mrs Dorothea Ives, Town of Salisbury historian
  6. Rahmer, Frederick, Jessie Williams Cheesemaker,   p. 11
  7. ,p.12
  8. Beers, F.W., History of Herkimer County, New York, pp 78-80
  9. Hardin, George, Judge, History of Herkimer County, New York, pp. 124-125
  10. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, July 13, 1865
  11. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, May 14, 1863
  12. Journal and Courier Little Falls, May 3, 1866
  13. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 825
  14. Green Nelson, History of Mohawk Valley, Gateway to the West p, 51
  15. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, Feb 2, 1871
  16. Hardin , George, Judge, The History of Herkimer County, pp 125-126
  17. Sesqui-Centennial Publication, 1961, Little Falls, New York
  18. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1875, p. 826
  19. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, May 11, 1875
  20. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, June 26, 1875
  21. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p.824
  22. Journal and Courier Little Falls, New York, May 27, 1873
  23. Primary materials supplied by Mrs Donna Gardinier, Historian, Town of Danube, Herkimer County, NY
  24. Journal and Courier, Little Falls, NY, January 5, 1875
  25. Journal and Courier Little Falls, NY April 23, 1872
  26. Journal and Courier. Little Falls, NY June 18, 1878
  27. Burrell Business Summery, by Loomis Burrell, son of David H Burrell, Courtesy of Mrs Edwin Fisher granddaughter of David Burrell, East Main St, Little Falls
  28. Loomis Burrell to James White, ()son of David H Burrell) 70 Fifth Avenue, New York NY kindness of Mrs Edwin Fisher
  29. Frederickson, Johan, The Story of Cheese, pp 64-66
  30. Memo from Loomis Burrell on D.H.Burrell stationery, Feb 22, 1921

31 Journal and Courier Little Falls, NY July 22, 1890

32 Journal and Courier Little Falls, New York July 1, 1884

33.Journal and Courier , Little Falls, NY July 1899

34 Journal and Courier, Little Falls, NY May 1899

35 Department of Agriculture of New York 1896 Bulletin

36 Journal and Courier Little Falls, January 1 1914

37.Journal and Courier, Little Falls, NY August 3,1920

38 Roswell, Cooper, President of Dairymen’s League as quoted in the Journal and Courier, Oct 5, 1920



Atlas Herkimer county 1868

Autobiography: David Hamlin Burrell, supplied by his granddaughter, Mrs Edwin Fisher, Little Falls,

Diary: Thomas Family diary, Thompson Road, Town of Salisbury, Herkimer county, NY 1855


Mrs Dorothea Ives, Salisbury NY historian for the town of Salisbury

Mrs. Edwin Fisher, 675 East Main Street, Little Falls, NY

Ralph Van Horn, archivist, Little Falls Historical Society


Harry Burrell, New York to James Ives Norway 1852

P.K. Stebbins, Newport to James Ives ,Norway 1852

Samuel Perry, New York to J.H. Ives, Norway 1860

Loomis Burrell Little Falls to James White, 70 fifth Avenue, New York NY (no date)

United States Patent Office

Us Department of Commerce

Patent and Trademark office, Washington D.C.

Newspaper References

Journal and Courier Newspaper, Little falls, NY in business until 1928

May14, 1863

July 13, 1865

May, 1866

February 2, 1871

April 23, 1872

April 23, 1872

May 11, 1875

January 5, 1875

June 26, 1875

May 27, 1873

June 15, 1875

July 1, 1884

May 1889

July 1889

July 22, 18u90

January 1, 1914

August 3, 1915

Oct 5, 1920

Benton , Nathaniel, A History of Herkimer County, Albany: Munsell, 1856

Beers, F>W>, History of Herkimer County, New York, New York: F.W. Beers and Co., 36 Vesey Street, New York, New York

Frederickson,Johan,The Story of Cheese, New York: MacMIllan, 1921

Hardin, George, History of Herkimer County, New York Syracuse:D. Mason and Co, 1893

Harper’s New Monthy Magazine, New York: Harpers’ and Brothers, 335 Pearl Street, 1893

Greene,Nelson, History of Mohawk Valley: Gateway To the West Chicago :S>J> Clarke Publishing, V. III 1925

Rahmer, Jesse, Jessie Williams, Cheesemaker, Rome, NY:: Frederick Rahmer, 1971

Sesqui-Centennial Celebration Publication, Little Falls: 1961

State of New York, Department of Agriculture, Butter and Cheese Production, for 1892





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