Little Falls, New York: Historic Cheese Capital of the US
From 1864 to 1870, Little Falls was the largest cheese market in the world.
The amount of cheese produced in the Little Falls, Poland, and Dolgeville area was at one time three times as great as in any other county in New York State. In fact, Little Falls was known as the Cheese Market Capital of the nation. It was through this market that “Herkimer County Cheese” became world-famous. Prices paid for cheese were those established at the Little Falls market. The quotes were flashed via Morse code over telegraph wires to all parts of the country. (source: NYSAC/New York State Assoc. of Counties)
Herkimer County Cheese History
By Nan Ressue of Preserve Our Past, Little Falls
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
Want to know more? We recommend this book and this New York State history blog.
“This is the story of the era when the premier cheesemaking region of the United States was in Central New York, chiefly in the Mohawk Valley. Here it was that Jesse Williams set up the first cheese factory in 1851…here too, Prof. Xerxes A. Willard championed the cause of higher standards in cheesemaking and became the nation’s most respected spokesman for the ‘associated dairies’ concept. This book includes reproductions of three rare primary documents about the history of cheesemaking in New York State in the 19th century.”
Here’s the amazon link for the book.
The following article was written for the Little Falls Historical Society and goes into more detail about the history and incredible output of local cheese makers. Note highlighted areas–amazing information!
“Herkimer County Was Once the Cheese-Making Center of the United States”
By Pauline Klimacke Walker, printed in the Little Falls Evening Times, December 24, 2009
(click here to view the original newspaper clipping)
In the 1800s, Herkimer County was the cheese-making center of the United States. The art of cheese-making was brought to this country by the Palatine Germans, many of whom settled in Newville and the town of Danube. One of the Newville Palatines was Phillip Baum, whose father had come to America in 1748.
Henry Baum was the son of Phillip Baum. Henry purchased land in the town of Schuyler. His farm grew and he had a herd of 30 cows and also a flock of sheep. Baum made cheese and sold it to distributors in Herkimer and Utica. In 1851, one of his buyers asked Henry if he could enter some of his cheeses in the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, England. He gave his permission and in a few weeks, word came back that Baum’s cheese had won first place! My husband’s grandfather Baum was born and brought up on the Schuyler farm, as was the grandfather of Louis Baum Sr., Neil Baum Sr. and Ruamy Spraker.
Everywhere the Palatines settled, cheese factors are recorded on the old maps. I have a copy of an old map, of what was then called Minden, in Herkimer County. Among the cheese factories recorded on this map, the largest was managed by Andrew G. Weatherwax. The statistics show that, from 1870 to 1877, 2,001,131 pounds of cheese was produced in his factory.
In 1865, the Danube Spring Cheese Co. was started in the vicinity of the Stafford neighborhood in Newville. In 1871, the Elm Grove Cheese Co. was erected on the farm of Henry Mesick. Other factories were the Valley Cheese Co. on the farm of Mrs. Van Allen and the Finks Basin Cheese factory on the canal. Each factory produced upwards of 50,000 pounds of cheese a year.
This was to name only a few of the many cheese factories located in the Herkimer County area. The cheese was made manually. In 1891, according to the Little Falls Historical Society, David Burrell began making cheese by machine. The Burrells, a resourceful family, shipped 10,000 pounds of cheese to England.
From 1864 to 1870, Little Falls was the largest cheese market in the world. The National Dairy Board of Trade was established here. Buyers came from all over on market day. The cheese makers would bring their products and assemble at the corner of Albany and Ann Streets, the present site of the Little Falls Historical Society Museum. Once sold, the cheese was delivered to the Little Falls Railroad Station for shipment. In an average season, 25 to 30 million pounds of cheese was sold in Little Falls, and then shipped all over the world. The practice continued into the 1900s. My mother’s uncle, John Brmdjar, owned and operated the old hotel behind the railroad depot. He did a thriving business until 1915.
An early Baum historian, Pauline Klimacek Walker was born and raised in Little Falls and graduated from Little Falls High School in 1945. She has resided in Skaneateles for the past 40 years.