“Xerxes Willard and the Prominence of the Little Falls Cheese Markets,” by David Van Meter, M.S.Acc., Ph.D.
Copyright ©2015 by Van Meter & Van Meter, LLC – All rights reserved.
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Although this traditional historical account of the Little Falls cheese market makes for a concise and compelling story, it bears the signal historiographical disadvantage of being overly simplified and misleading to very near the point of mythmaking. Looking into the origins of the traditional account, and the manner in which it became accepted as fact in the historiography of the American dairy industry, reveals a glimpse into a fascinating but largely untold story of how the tiny city of Little Falls, New York, served as the birth place of dairy journalism in America, and how one particularly influential journalist, Xerxes A. Willard of Little Falls, thrust the Little Falls cheese market into the national spotlight in order to promote the interests of dairy producers throughout New York State.
The Invention of Dairy Journalism in Little Falls
While the first American farm newspaper first appeared in 1810, the trend toward specialization in agriculture over the next five decades and the emerging culture of scientific inquiry both led to an increased demand for agricultural news. Notably, the middle years of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of a specialized dairy press concurrent with the burgeoning production of cheese and butter to serve the growing cities and especially the foreign markets that began to open after 1841. The credit for first to attempt to create something resembling a specialized dairy journal must go to Ohio, where crude cheese factories began to appear as early as the 1840s. In Jefferson, Ohio, a farm journal that marketed directly to the dairy industry started publication in March of 1852 under a masthead entitled Western Reserve Frontier Farmer and Dairyman. However, despite its name, the paper did not actually publish very much at all in the way of dairy news, but primarily ran articles on general farm practice, and the paper failed to generate much interest and thus printed its last issue on October 15, 1852 (Schlebecker, 25-6).
It was in Little Falls, New York that the first successful dairy journal actually emerged. In February 1859, leading members of the Farmers Club of Little Falls, to include its secretary Xerxes Willard, partnered with Allen Eaton, owner and editor of the Mohawk Valley Courier, to begin publication of the Dairyman’s Record. Eaton’s goal was avowedly to revolutionize the exchange of information among dairymen: “It will be a new era in rural affairs at home, if our new publication shall enlist the attention of the tillers of the soil in Herkimer county, and other grazing districts in Central New York, so far as to make its pages the medium of an interchange of opinions founded on experience” (Eaton, “New Era,” 18). Indeed, a major purpose of the new journal was to publish in convenient form the essays and discussions of the Little Falls Farmers Club and the Winfield Philosophical Club (Schlebecker, 26).
The Dairyman’s Record apparently did not make any money for the publisher, and while Eaton established the broad editorial policies of the journal, he left the major share of the work of writing articles and gathering content to volunteers from the two clubs (Schlebecker, 31). In May of 1860 the name of the paper was changed to the Dairy Farmer and it was made a monthly under the editorship of L.B. Arnold, A.L. Fish, and X.A. Willard. Still the paper struggled finanically, despite getting generally favorable reviews from farm journals around the country, and in April 1861 Eaton sold it to Ayer and Brigham, who promised to focus more narrowly on the management of cheese dairies. At this time, Xerxes Willard assumed most of the editorial responsibilities for the paper, for which he now received a modest stipend from the publisher.
The editorship of the Dairy Farmer marked a defining moment in the life of Xerxes Willard. The son of a prominent physician, Dr. Nathan S. Willard, who practiced in Eatonville, Xerxes had graduated with a Master of Arts degree from Hamilton college and then moved to Little Falls to take a position studying law in the offices of Loomis and Nolton. In 1848, he married Harriet Hallet of Fairfield and soon thereafter purchased the 100 acre farm of her grandfather, Judge Evans Wharry, where he took up dairying with a herd of 25 cows. He entered journalism in 1858, accepting the position of editor at the Herkimer County Journal, which he held until 1861, and from 1860-62 he also occupied the office of toll collector for the Erie Canal at Little Falls.
Interestingly, cheese making was not much discussed in the Dairy Farmer prior to 1861, when it start to receive considerable attention in articles and notices under the editorial hand of Willard. Notably, in 1861 Willard reprinted a seminal article that he had written on “Cheese Dairying in Herkimer County,” which had appeared earlier in the year in the Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society. Even so, despite an occasional article extolling the efficiency of the factory system, the focus of the cheese-making articles was for the most part on the production of cheese on the family farm, even though during this period the factory associations were beginning to decisively penetrate the dairy economy of Herkimer County. The fact that the Dairy Farmer hitched its wagon to a dying industry is perhaps one of the reasons that the journal failed over the course of the next year, ceasing publication in May of 1862. But another reason for the failure was a lack of newsworthy or scientific content, a problem that eventually Willard would tackle by finding a source of recurring news in his biweekly market intelligence reports that he developed for the Utica Herald.
The Emergence of Market Days for Cheese in Herkimer County
In the very years that Willard was establishing the foundation of his career as journalist, structural changes in the way that cheese was produced and marketed began to shake the dairy industry. In the middle of the nineteenth century, beginning in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws, and culminating in 1860 with the Cobden-Chevalier treaty, Britain embarked on a grand experiment in free trade, which lowered barriers to imports of foodstuffs and thus created an enormous economic stimulus for the American cheese market (Harley, 56).
To meet this expanded demand for cheese for export, cheese factories were erected throughout the most productive dairy regions. While there had been experiments with factory production of cheese as early as the 1840s in the Ohio Western Reserve and in Wisconsin, the system first gained wide acceptance as an improved and more economical method of cheese production in Upstate New York around the year 1860 (Alvord, 454). In the middle years of the nineteenth century the total annual cheese production in the US amounted to somewhat over 100 million pounds annually, with nearly all of it made in farm dairies. But by 1870, the volume of factory made cheese was nearly double that of farm-made cheese, and by the end of the century, annual cheese production had risen to 300 million pounds, with 96 or 97 percent of it made in the nearly 3,000 factories scattered across the dairy regions of the country (Pirtle, 4; Alvord, 263).
Concurrent with the growth in demand and the shift to factory production, the late 1850s saw a significant change in the manner in which cheese was brought forward all across Herkimer County, as the locus of wholesale marketing shifted from the farms to the railway depots. Prior to the period 1844-1847, the nascent railroads had been prohibited by their charters from carrying freight, and even afterward freight handling facilities were generally inadequate to the needs of industry along the Mohawk Valley. Beginning in 1853, however, the patchwork of independent railroads in New York began the process of consolidation into the New York Central and Hudson Railroad, which allowed for a massive infusion of capital into upgrading the lines and increasing capacity for freight shipments. By 1860, cheese was being carried from Little Falls to Albany at the rate of five cents per ton per mile (Speech, 41).
Willard described the very beginning of this current of change on the way cheese came to market in his 1860 paper on “Cheese Dairying in Herkimer County,” noting that much marketing of dairy was still done in the traditional manners of forward selling an entire year’s produce to an agent, or alternately of sending the produce to a wholesale house in New York for sale on commission. However, Willard also pointed out that:
“For several years past, purchasers have made it a point to meet on stated days, twice or thrice a week, at the depots where cheese is delivered, and there select the quality and quantity desired, paying cash down for their purchases, or on short time, as agreed upon by the parties. Dairymen are more and more inclined to do a cash business, demanding payment on delivery of each load” (“Cheese Dairying,” 188).
These Herkimer County depots around which cheese market days emerged included Little Falls, Herkimer, Ilion, and Frankfort. We should take note that in his 1860 account of the emergence of market days for cheese at the railway depots of Herkimer County, Willard makes absolutely no mention of the Little Falls market being special or dominant in any particular way. Arphaxed Loomis, a noteworthy lawyer and dairyman of Little Falls who had served a term in Congress during the Van Buren years, and who was also an officer of the Farmer”s Club along with Willard, also remembered the emergence of the market days for cheese as being directly related to increasing use of the railroads to ship cheese to New York City:
“About 1860 the practice commenced of bringing cheese forward by rail, on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was for the convenience of shipment, and led to the establishment of the system of having Monday the regular market day. Cheese being expected and brought in on that day, the buyers assembled to meet it. This practice was extend to other places of shipment, but required other days in the week to accommodate the same buyers who attended here on Monday” (Loomis, 382).
The three busiest rail depots in Herkimer County were Little Falls, Herkimer and Ilion. Willard, in an address before the Cheese Makers Association in 1865, noted that he had received from H.W. Priest, the railroad agent at Little Falls, a report that in 1864 a total of 5.96 million pounds of butter and cheese had been shipped from the Little Falls rail depot, while 4.52 million pounds left from the Herkimer depot, and another 4.01 million pounds left from the Ilion depot; Frankfort was in a distant fourth place, with less than a million pounds leaving that station (Address, 15).
The market days at the railway depots at first made no discernable impact on dairy pricing structures in the wholesale markets of New York City, and received scant notice in the press outside of Little Falls. By way of example, in the issues of the Herkimer County Democrat through the years 1860-1861, one could read commodity market reports of cheese prices in New York City and in Utica, but there was no regular reporting on the prices obtained in the Herkimer County markets such as Little Falls in the commerce columns. From time to time the Monday cheese shipments in Little Falls did make the news, but the focus was generally on any unusual volume of cheese leaving the station more so than on the auction market activity itself. An example from the July 31, 1861 edition of the Herkimer County Democrat typifies the content of such reporting:
“Cheese Shipment. A ‘big thing’ in cheese was done in Little Falls on Monday: 2159 boxes weighing 159,710 pounds, were shipped from that station on that day. This staple is now commanding a fair price and the competition among buyers is quite brisk” (p. 3).
Moreover, Little Falls was not the only town in Herkimer County where cheese markets had sprung up around the railway depots to receive such journalistic notice, as evidenced by this report of the market in Herkimer that appeared in the Herkimer County Democrat on April 25, 1860:
“Cheese. There was quite a number of farmers in town on Tuesday with their cheese. The demand in New York is good, at 9c to 13c” (p. 3).
Thus, while a lot of cheese passed through Little Falls during the first half of the 1860s, there was no particular sense in the American dairy industry that Little Falls was in any way the Cheese Capital of New York State, let alone the nation or the world. The beginning of the national prominence of the Little Falls cheese market awaited yet another phase in the journalistic career of Xerxes Willard.
How Little Falls Became the Cheese Capital of the Nation
In 1864, Xerxes Willard accepted a position as one of the editors of the Utica Herald family of newspapers, with the responsibility of initiating an extensive coverage of the dairy industry, especially in the Utica Weekly Herald. Almost immediately he began the serialized publication of a detailed and quite excellent description of the dairy farms and factories of substantially all the principal towns of Herkimer and Oneida counties, as well as many towns in the neighboring counties (reprinted in part as “Notes from the Dairy Region”).
Willard’s writing for the Utica Herald, as well as his leadership in founding the New York State Cheese Manufacturer’s Association and its successor the American Dairymen’s Association, secured for him a reputation as the national expert on the dairy industry. When in 1866 he travelled extensively through Great Britain as a representative of the Dairymen’s Association, he also established his reputation as a national spokesman for the dairymen in a time of enormous growth in demand for American cheese abroad. Willard was also regarded as an excellent orator, and was popular on the agricultural lecture circuit. By way of example, the August 28th, 1868 edition of the Schenevus Valley News reported with delight that Willard had been commissioned to give the keynote address at the annual fair, and told readers that “Mr. Willard is one of the best agricultural lecturers the state affords.”
In his newspaper articles, in his speeches, and in the numerous books and pamphlets that he published on dairying, Willard tirelessly sought to advance the economic interests of the dairymen and factorymen in an increasingly complex economy featuring long-distance trade that involved multiple layers middlemen in the supply chain, and monopolistic railroads that dictated shipping prices. One of Willard’s ongoing concerns was to help dairymen achieve a certain enhanced level of pricing power over their produce. In a stirring 1865 address to the New York State Cheese Makers Association, Willard extolled the advantages of association in overcoming the market forces that shaved away the prospective profits of the dairy industry:
“But the dairyman, with his herd of fifty or one hundred cows, standing alone, has a circle of influence whose radius extends but little beyond his farm. He is, in a measure, at the mercy of corporations and speculators, who, by operating together, may fix prices and control the trade. When associated with others, in neighborhoods, in towns, in counties, and in the State, he becomes formidable, and meets, on equal terms, the community of dealers with whom he is operating”(Willard, “Protective Advantages,” 1).
Willard and other leading figures in the dairy industry understood the magnitude of this problem of marketing cheese but found it difficult to make headway with dairymen. Indeed, at the second annual meeting of the New York State Cheese Manufacturers Association, held in Utica on January 12, 1865, and at which Willard presented the keynote address, one of the three agenda items for discussion in the afternoon session was “the best manner of marketing cheese” (“Transactions,” 372). However, when the subject came up for discussion, a “Mr. Chapman asked what marketing meant, and no one responded … On motion of Mr. Bragdon, of Rochester, the subject was laid on the table” (373).
It was at the Utica Herald that Willard first deployed a new and highly significant journalistic innovation in his dairy reporting that began to address the problem of marketing cheese in such manner as to give an advantage to the Upstate dairymen. In 1864, he began to publish informative weekly reports of the activity in the Little Falls cheese markets, to include prices, volume and trader sentiment, which quickly became required reading for the entire New York dairy industry. We may read an example, at random, of these weekly reports by Willard in the Utica Weekly Herald of September 6, 1864:
“Cheese Market – The demand for cheese at the Little Falls market on Monday, August 29th, was more active than the week previous, and prices were a shade better. Sales of family dairies ranged from 22 to 24 cts, and strictly prime (fancy) at 25c per pound. The receipts of the day were light… The market for cheese at Little Falls on Wednesday, Aug. 31, was dull and prices had a downward tendency, varying from 18c to 20c per pound. Not much in market” (Vol. 26.45, p. 3).
In one sense, the publication of these reports simply represented a shrewd business move for the Utica Weekly Herald as it sought to expand its readership among dairymen. In his 1865 address to the Cheese Makers Association, Willard recounted why he had begun to promote the Little Falls market days in his weekly column:
“Little Falls is, and has been for years, one of the largest country cheese markets in the United States. All the noted cheese dealers meet here twice a week, and, as competition often runs high, it is regarded as a tolerably good guide as to the real feeling in the trade. Our weekly reports of this market during the past season have been regarded by a large number of dairymen as alone amply paying for the Herald. We hope another season to make an arrangement by which the sales of factory cheese may be reported from time to time as they occur” (“Address,” 16).
Certainly these reports had the effect of creating a recurring source of news, to supplement Willard’s artful narrative accounts of the dairy lands, and to ensure the adequacy of relevant content for the paper. That such market intelligence reports, as they gained popularity and hence credibility, contributed to the circulation of the newspaper is rather more than implicit. Indeed, as the dairy boom continued, the Utica Herald increasingly positioned itself, and especially the weekly edition, as a newspaper for the Upstate dairy industry. By 1873, the Utica Weekly Herald, published on Tuesdays, prominently mentioned its weekly report of the Little Falls cheese markets as a key feature in its subscription advertisements (see e.g., Geo. P. Rowell and Co’s Gazetteer, p. 209)
However, the weekly report on the Little Falls market days also served to advance Willard’s vision of a dairy marketing structure in which producers selling at the interior markets might gain something approaching an equal footing with the dealers serving the New York City wholesale markets. Willard noted with satisfaction the impact of his promotion of the Little Falls market upon the pricing power of dairy producers:
“Previous to 1864 farmers relied on city quotations, which were sometimes thought to be in the merchants’ favor. Indeed so sharp was the competition at Little Falls that the prices paid at this market were not infrequently above New York quotations, and dairymen form other sections sought eagerly for these reports before selling” (Hardin, 125).
Indeed, on the subject of pricing power, we must carefully note that Willard’s reports on the activity of the Little Falls cheese markets prior to 1871 represent a subtle bit of legerdemain, in that the journalist carefully cherry-picked the prices he published. A report on the cheese market day in Little Falls that was published in the Syracuse Courier in 1869 rather shrewdly notes that Willard’s price reports gave only the highest prices realized, and did not reflect the full range of transactions that occurred through the day, as many of the curbside transactions were negotiated at prices lower than reported. The same reporter also noted that dealers quickly came to appreciate the unique role of the price reports emanating from the Little Falls market on setting price expectations in the wholesale markets of New York City, and sometimes schemed to manipulate the markets through Willard’s reports. Clever dealers bought the bulk of their cheese in the numerous interior markets in Oneida, Madison, Lewis and Herkimer counties, and when they went up to the Little Falls market they would, according to the author of this report, deliberately bid prices up, knowing that this would affect the sentiments in the New York City wholesale markets for which their wares were bound. Accordingly, the report noted, “these dealers may lose money on their Little Falls purchase, but if they can influence New York’s prices in an upward direction, they will probably make their week’s transaction pay them handsomely” (“Cheese Market Day”, 172).
In January of 1869, Willard accepted a position as dairy editor for a highly-regarded New York City agricultural journal, the Rural New Yorker, where he continued to publish regular reports of the Little Falls Market. Around this same time we may discern form his addresses and writings that he took an interest in encouraging dairymen across the nation to emulate the example of Little Falls, and adopt a market day system for marketing cheese. In an 1871 address to the Chautuaqua dairymen describing how and why he had pioneered the first Board of Trade in Little Falls, Willard reflected on how his earlier newspaper reports on the Little Falls cheese markets had largely overturned the traditional pricing structures, as city buyers now thought of the interior markets offering better trading intelligence than the city markets:
Every county should have its central markets… By reducing expenses and risks, the produce dealer pays the producer more money, receives of the consumer less, and still makes an equal if not larger profit than under the loose and unsatisfactory method so much in vogue with American farmers. Thirteen years ago [i.e., ca. 1858], a sales day was established at Little Falls. Innovations on long established customs always work slowly, and this was no exception. In 1864, I opened in the Utica Herald, the first regular reports of the sales of butter and cheese at Little Falls. These have regularly continued in the Rural New Yorker, and the Little Falls market has attracted general attention. As a result, for the last few years the great houses of Manchester, Liverpool, and other European cities, consult the butter reports of Little Falls for butter and cheese rather than those of Boston or New York” (“Marketing,” p. 65).
Willard went on to proffer the success of the Little Falls market as an object lesson for dairymen on the need to associate in order create an organized system to market their product more efficiently:
Experience has demonstrated that associations and combinations of resources accomplish very much that is beyond the power of individual action. As yet, its application to the dairy interests has been altogether too limited… Let the dairymen have a fixed time for meeting at a convenient location near a railroad depot, where agents can purchase by samples or by the load, and higher prices will be readily given, while a greater profit will be realized by the dealer, because running less risks from the change of market prices. The price of the commodity for sale, transmitted by telegraph, is known, and the sale is effected upon the current rates of the day and not those of a week old” (“Marketing,” 64).
Opposed to the market days, of course, was the old system of commission dealers and their agents buying from the farms , which was not only more expensive but also exposed the dealers to the risk of great losses, which always redounded on the farmers as well as the dealer.
To underscore the risks that farmers incurred by marketing their cheese under the old system of commission agents, Willard raised as an example the trouble caused by a prominent cheese dealer named Samuel Perry. Before continuing, let us pause to remark that Perry makes for a most interesting footnote in the history of American dairy marketing. A native of Newport, New York, Samuel and his brother Stuart, who was a noteworthy inventor of food packaging innovations, were orphaned at a very young age when their father brutally murdered their mother with a butcher knife in 1826, and then committed suicide in jail by slashing his own throat, after which his corpse was stolen by medical students from Fairfield (for the rest of this lurid story, see Tippets). Samuel Perry entered the cheese trade, and by the 1840s had emerged as a prosperous wholesale cheese dealer in partnership with his brother-in-law William Sweezy, with offices on Front Street and later Water Street, in New York City. By 1854, judging from an advertisement in the March 18th edition of the United States Economist, he had become involved in the expanding business of exporting American cheese to England. He also engaged as a junior partner Edward Stiles Stokes, who later gained notoriety for murdering his partner in an oil refinery out of jealousy for the affections of a mutual love interest.
We read in the June 13, 1860 edition of the Herkimer County Democrat that “Messrs. Perry & Swezy, the well-known dealers in New York, have, through their agents contracted for a large portion of the cheese to be made in this county the present season.” Unfortunately for Perry and his partner, this trade ended quite poorly, as the onset of the Civil War caused turmoil in the New York City money and credit markets, and much of the cheese contracted proved on delivery to be of too poor quality to export to England. While Perry continued to operate after this disaster, his distressed business collapsed within several years.
In earlier versions of his story of cheese marketing in Herkimer County, Xerxes Willard had presented Perry as an honorable if ambitious dealer who had pioneered the marketing of Herkimer County cheese in England. In his 1863 annual report to the Little Falls Farmers Club, Willard rhetorically asked, “is it not just for us to give due credit to a Herkimer County man, Samuel Perry of New York, who in 1860, conceived the idea of shipping our staple on a large scale, and through whose efforts the British public was brought to a better appreciation of American cheese” (“Address,” 7). In later years, however. Willard began to portray Perry as a speculator who had tried and failed to corner the market on cheese in 1860, with the result that dairymen who had placed cheese through him on long credit suffered great losses. Thus, in Willard’s revised accounts, the Little Falls cheese market day commenced in 1861, as a direct consequence of Perry’s failure to pay his debts to Herkimer County dairymen. The two events, Perry’s failure and the inauguration of the Little Falls cheese market day, are inextricably intertwined in Willard’s later writings, such as we encounter in Hardin’s History: “In fact, I think, that so many dairymen had lost money the previous year, and the desire on their part to sell for cash or on short credits, helped to start the sales day or public market at Little Falls” (124).
Willard and the Little Falls Dairy Board of Trade
By 1870, as factory cheese crowded out farm-made cheese, as many as 200 or 300 factory sales agents might attend the weekly market day at Little Falls during the peak of the season. The product they sold seldom passed through Little Falls, however, as they would ship the contracted cheese from the railway depots nearest their factories. This same situation prevailed throughout the dairy regions, and it was increasingly apparent that the street markets, in which trade was conjoined with delivery to the depot, were becoming obsolete.
As early as 1866, Anson Bartlett had proposed a plan for a centralized cheese exchange mechanism to the dairymen of Ohio, even while noting the many objections and difficulties that might hinder such a scheme. Willard, too, saw the value in such a centralized exchange system, which was already employed by grain and stock dealers, and in the winter of 1870-71 he began to issue calls for the organization of such an exchange for dairy producers. In March of 1871 the first State Dairy Board of Exchange formed at Little Falls, with Judge George Hardin as chairman, Willard as president, and David H. Burrell as treasurer. The businessmen of Little Falls contributed several hundred dollars to the provision of a board room for trading located at the Evans House in the old Cronkhite block, and this first Board of Trade opened for business on May 1st, 1871 (Proceedings, 14).
Within the space of a month after the founding of the Little Falls Board of Trade, two other dairy boards of trade opened: first the dairymen of Utica opened a board of trade in direct competition with the Board in Little Falls, and then Willard served as the leading organizer of a board in Sinclairville, in Chautauqua County. Other boards opened in subsequent years at Canton, Watertown, Ogdensburg, Fulton, and Boonville, among other places. The primary purpose of these organized dairy exchanges was to help the dairymen achieve better prices for their product in an open auction market, in which pricing intelligence was available to all parties on both sides of the trade (Gilbert, 34). But they also served to better organize the trade in a manner more conducive to meeting the peculiar needs of the factorymen. As Willard explained, the goal was to get the cheese trade out of the streets and into a well-ordered auction room:
“A board of trade does not presume that any better or any poorer sales of cheese shall be made at this market. It is simply a mutual agreement, on the part of buyer and seller, to remove transactions from the dust and sun and rain and mud of the open street to a roomy, well-ventilated and convenient quarters, which afford some comfort to the buyer and seller. It is simply making business attractive, bringing order out of disorder…” (Proceedings, 3).
Indeed, from the beginning, the boards of trade were intended to eliminate the inefficiency and chaos of the street markets. The cheese from factories was not brought to the boards of trade, but rather the buyers were expected to know the factories by their reputation, and to monitor that with periodic visits. The cheese bought on the exchanges was shipped direct from the factory to any point the buyer indicated, and if the factories shipped inferior product, then on inspection at the destination it was marked down in price (Gilbert, 35). Cheese bound for New York City, in fact, was often shipped several days prior to the meeting of the board of trade, and the bills of lading were turned over to the buyer when settling trades made on the board.
The system of marketing cheese and butter at dairy boards of trade also represented the culmination of Willard’s interest in organizing dairymen in order to achieve better prices for their product by conducting sales in an auction setting, with current prices at major markets prominently posted. At his inaugural address before the Little Falls Board of Trade, Willard reminded his audience that:
“To know how to manufacture good butter and good cheese is also of prime importance. But there is something beyond all of this which not infrequently depresses and paralyzes our best efforts in dairy management: I refer to a loose and unskillful manner of marketing dairy produce… We have seen what wonderful results have been accomplished by the associated system of dairying… It has been abundantly proved, wherever the experiment has been tried, that an organized system of marketing is not only a benefit to the producers but to the produce dealer… At a central market you meet with numerous experts, and the judgment of different persons gives more satisfaction, and gives greater weight than that of one person, whose opinion is often suspected of being warped or biased, perhaps for private ends. Then at a regular central market there is always a community of interests, a spread of intelligence, not only as to market values, but as to production and manufacture, which are of very great importance to the producer’s interest” (Proceedings, 10-12).
As the boards of trade opened around the country, Little Falls retained its national reputation as the leading cheese market despite the fact that some of the competitors overshadowed it in terms of economic significance. In particular, the Utica Board of Trade posed a serious competitive threat to the Little Falls cheese market. Speaking to the Little Falls Board of Trade in soon after its establishment in 1871, Arphaxed Loomis had noted with extreme annoyance that not only had Utica inaugurated a board of trade, but that it too met on Mondays, the day that the Little Falls Board conducted its business, and he urged Utica to stick with its traditional lines of business in savings banks and in cotton and woolen goods (Loomis, 382). In fairness, we should note that the men who opened the Utica Board of Trade had their own harsh words for the Little Falls Board. In particular, they accused the Little Falls exchange of being too prone to insider dealing. In addition, they pointed out that while the Utica Board settled trades only in cash, the Little Falls Board allowed settlement on credit, which resulted at times in higher prices. These same critics pointed out, somewhat smugly, that easy credit could still harm the dairyman, as when in the fall of 1871 the New York City firm of Ernst and Christ failed while owing $36,000 to some of the factories that sold cheese on the Little Falls Board of Trade (Gilbert, “Utica,” 252-3).
Probably from the start, and certainly by 1875, the Utica Board of Trade transacted more annual business, in both volume and sales, than Little Falls (Gilbert, Cheese Industry, 53). Utica’s dominance in trading owed in part to that city’s convenient proximity by rail to New York City and other major wholesale markets, and especially to its ample facilities for visiting buyers, and also to the fact that more cream cheese passed through Utica than Little Falls (Gilbert, 34). Indeed, by 1875 the Merchant and Banker, a weekly publication of the New York Daily Bulletin, published market reports on both the Little Falls and Utica cheese markets in its commerce section. Thus, Little Falls was neither the only cheese exchange in the state, nor was it even the most active, with nearby Utica claiming that honor. So how then did the Little Falls continue to be considered the Cheese Capital of the nation? The answer to this curiosity lies directly with the continued journalistic efforts by Willard to promote the pricing power of the interior cheese markets, using Little Falls as his favored story.
Willard himself published a regular column that provided detailed accounts of the activity on the Little Falls Board of Trade for the Rural New Yorker, describing trading conditions and volume, and often enumerating the prices realized by the leading factories and thus local brands that supplied the market. Quite significantly, he published his column under the exceeding broad title “The Country Cheese Market”, which served to brand the Little Falls market as the representative interior market for cheese. The drama of the ups and downs of the market still makes for interesting reading today, at least to those who may be accustomed to reading quotations for securities and commodities. Here is an account of a down day on the markets, on September 7, 1872:
“The market at Little Falls, for the week ending September 7, was exceeding dull, with a falling off in prices from last week’s sales of about 1/4 cent on farm dairies and 1 cent on factories. The buyers’ figures were so low that most of the factorymen refused to sell, preferring to hold for another week… The weather is cool and wet.”
Willard also wrote, from the mid-1860s until his death on October 26, 1882, a regular dairy column in the Albany Cultivator and Country Gentleman which for many years was devoted largely to scientific dairy information and reports on annual fairs and meetings of various associations. In the 1870s, other reporters for the Country Gentleman occasionally published moderately lengthy reports on the Little Falls and Herkimer Cheese markets. Then around the year 1880 Willard changed the subject of his regular dairy column to the course of the cheese trade, which invariably treated the reader to nearly four full columns each week filled with narrative, gossip and figures on the activity in the Little Falls and New York City markets. With these columns, Willard’s journalistic depictions of the cheese markets transcended anything resembling mere commodity price reports and emerged as veritable stories filled with personae and drama. If there was any doubt in the minds of American agriculturalists as to the primacy of the Little Falls cheese markets, these exceptionally lengthy and colorful Dairy Department columns must surely have set the record straight!
The Herkimer County cheese industry, which was highly profitable for dairymen, factorymen and dealers alike in the second half of the nineteenth century, resulted directly in the concentration of an enormous sum of wealth in a few hands in Little Falls. In effect, many of the greatest architectural landmarks that are still extant in Little Falls, from the City Hall to the Overlook Mansion, from the Zoller house to the YMCA, were built with cheese money. The especial prosperity of cheese traders in Little Falls as opposed to those in surrounding towns stemmed in some measure at least from the happy accident that dairy journalism first took root in that community, and that from that early experiment in dairy journalism emerged the foremost spokesman and writer on behalf of the dairy industry in that era.
Xerxes Willard’s creation and tireless promotion of regular journalistic reports on the market for Herkimer cheese in Little Falls represented an important innovation in dairy promotion and branding. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century dairymen and wholesale buyers in Upstate New York attentively read the price quotations from the New York City wholesale markets that appeared regularly in their local newspapers, and thus the prices realized in the city inevitably influenced pricing expectation in the interior markets. In 1864 Willard cleverly turned this situation on its head with his well-crafted and informative reports on market conditions and prices in the Little Falls cheese market, so that now New York City merchants sought advance intelligence on supply and pricing in the interior by carefully reading the reports from Herkimer County that appeared in the city newspapers.
Willard was thus not so much the historian of the national prominence of the Little Falls cheese market, as he was its creator. Willard’s role in the establishing the fame of the Little Falls cheese markets was well understood by his contemporaries, and in Hardin’s History of Herkimer County we read that “As a cheese producing district Little Falls ranks among the best in the country, and the fact that this industry found its local center here was largely due to a resident of this town, the late X.A. Willard, whose writings on the subject have a national reputation” (244).
By the late 1890s, cheese production in the Mohawk Valley began to declined rapidly; for this there were many causes, most of which are fairly well-known in the historical literature on agriculture, and which included increased foreign completion for the export market, severe quality problems and scandals of adulteration that reduced the brand value of New York cheese, and finally the development of facilities to transport liquid milk by rail to New York City. One alleged reason for the decline of New York cheese, however, has not been much remarked upon to my knowledge, and bears mention here simply because it affords an insight into a societal drama that was being played out in America in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Writing a report on the New York cheese industry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1896, B.D. Gilbert decried a new temperance law in New York that forbade saloons to offer free lunches. According to the statistics he provided, a full one-sixth of the cheese consumed in New York was actually eaten in saloons, rendering this law “one of the severest blows yet inflicted on the cheese industry” (Gilbert, 42).