HERKIMER COUNTY CHEESE HISTORY
a colorful story of enterprise, innovation, boom…and bust
Herkimer County’s claim to 19th-century fame centered on the cheese business. Weekly open-air markets were held in Little Falls. Farm wagons were lined up along the curb at the Ann and Albany Street intersection to haggle over prices, with many dealers present. These seasonal Monday markets set the national and international cheese prices in the third quarter of the 19th century.
Jonathan Burrell, founder of the Herkimer County cheese business, came from Sheffield, Massachusetts to the Town of Salisbury around 1790 with his son Harry. They were soon in the dairy business making butter and cheese as well as acting as marketing agents for their neighbors. In 1826, Harry was commissioned by his Salisbury neighbors to sell their cheeses in New York City by carting it to Albany and floating it down the Hudson to a rented warehouse in the city and selling it over the winter months. Motivated by success, he soon enlarged his business to selling cheese in Philadelphia and adding cheeses from Vermont and Massachusetts to his inventory. Harry also opened the cheese trade with England with an initial shipment of 10,000 pounds. The business gradually expanded until he was storing 70,000 of cheese in New York over the winter. Profits from commissions were usually invested in real estate in Herkimer County. Harry’s success as a commission salesman served as a model for his son David who was to become a multimillionaire and Little Falls’ most generous benefactor.
David Burrell was included in the family business at an early age, assisting his father during the summer buying months and in New York City during the winter sales. The Burrells often started their sales season with 60,000 boxes of cheese. By age 22, young David personally carried off a sale of 33,000 boxes for $66,000, netting a commission of $1000. At age 27, he was sent to England to rescue a floundering Burrell cheese factory. During that stay, he visited other factories to observe their methods. Upon returning home, he sold his interest in the sales effort and bought out George Ashley’s hardware store with his partner Rodney Whitman.
Doing business in ways that supported the cheese business was a shrewd decision. High-quality stock and the latest equipment could be found at Whitman and Burrell, some of which were David Burrell’s own inventions. The real estate purchased with cheese profits often became tenant farms (the farmer would work for 2/5 of the profit and Burrell as owner would take 3/5).
Impressive amounts of money were earned through auxiliary business that supported the cheese trade. Among these were: ice for dairymen, heaters for curd, cheese vats and presses, seamless cheese bandages, wooden and metal hoops, cheese boxes and tacks, one-seam milk cans, and gang presses that could press 20 cheeses at once. There were a number of factories that made cheese boxes exclusively.
The development of the cheese factory system as introduced by Jessie Williams, a farmer in the Rome, New York area, was the key to moving the cheese business from a home industry into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Due to the Williams’ consistently high-quality cheeses, neighbors offered him their milk to add to his own. Milk cans brought to the Williams farm were weighed, dumped into a receiving vat, and the farmer given credit for the shipment. Many potential factory owners visited the family to observe their methods; Mr. Williams generously shared his expertise. By 1869, there were 500 cheese factories in New York State using Williams’ methods. Avery and Ives of Salisbury was one of the first cheese factories established in Herkimer County. As factories were born and reputations for high quality developed, favored local producers received their orders directly from England.
Circa 1860, it was customary to do business with long credits whereby the farmer would receive a small down payment and the bulk of his due when his cheese was finally sold. Due to some unscrupulous dealers, the approaching Civil War, and some dealerships suffering bankruptcies, local cheeses were sold on a short credit or for cash at open-air Monday markets in Little Falls. Market mornings were reserved for individual producers, and afternoons were designed for the factory trade. New York City agents would come up from the city on the train, visit the market, take sample borings and close their deals with competitive bidding.
The Journal and Courier, one of Little Falls’ two newspapers, reported on July 13, 1865 that:
The largest amount of cheese ever received in this village in one day was on Monday of this week. 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 be impossible to weigh all the cheese and many farmers concluded to store their loads and go home. That which was stored was delivered Tuesday, the shipments of two days being 4299 boxes, almost all of which was bought and paid for on Monday….Mr. Henry Priest was the freight agent and every cheese was rolled onto a platform scale set flush with the floor and weighed. The weight was marked on the box with a brush and lamp black. Matthew Thume was the marker and would stand all day at the task in a hole in the floor to be convenient to the work…
By 1886, the activity at the cheese market was exciting editorial comment in the Journal and Courier. The newspaper pleaded with dairymen to keep their wagons off the pedestrian walks and to keep their brawls and quarrels to a minimum. It must have been a lively scene.
By 1874, a dependable rennet extract developed by Christian Hansen of Denmark. Hansen was brought to Little Falls to establish a rennet production business on Lock Island. Realizing the importance of this product to the production of high-quality cheese, David Burrell was instrumental in bringing Hansen to Little Falls and organizing himself as sole agent of the rennet in the United States and Canada.
A newer development in the cheese production was the development of a process that removed the majority of the cream from the milk (which was used to make butter) before it was turned over to the cheesemakers. Two profits from one product was tempting to many producers, but caused an outcry among the full-cream cheese producers who feared that Herkimer County’s reputation for superior quality would be marred. Unscrupulous makers sold skim-milk cheeses under a full-cream label.
By 1871, the vigorous and successful cheese market came under a new organization known as the Dairy Board of Trade with David Burrell as treasurer. Largely a producers’ organization, its offices were in a boardroom of a building on the northwest corner of Ann and Albany streets. Current prices for cheeses were posted on public boards for small and large white, small and large yellow (colored with annutto), and skim-milk cheeses. Telegraph connections to New York City made it possible to obtain cheese prices from many markets in order that agents and dealers would have the latest figures. Everybody had the same information. This pioneer organization served as a model for one established in Utica. Cheeses shipped to New York by rail or boat were received by the Butter and Cheese Exchange, where the boxes were weighed again and sampled for quality.
By 1880s, Herkimer County’s unquestioned leadership was beginning to show some signs of decline. Prices for cheese produced in Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as well as Canadian cheeses were beginning to be quoted in newspapers and in Boards of Trade. Herkimer County cheese was often being undersold. A deflated southern cotton market in the years before the Civil War brought about a decision by Wisconsin cheesemakers to ship their cheese east instead of south, resulting in a flood in the New York market. Among the most devastating blows to the cheese market was the diversion of fluid milk into condensed milk for the troops during World War I and the development of a fluid milk market in New York City.
By 1920, the Journal and Courier reported that there was no Little Falls cheese for sale. The day of the cheese market was over.
Researched and written by Nan Ressue of Preserve our Past, Little Falls, New York