By Bryan Thompson
In 1851 an event took place in Hicks Mills, NY that would forever transform the face of agriculture in New York and especially in the North Country. In that year Jesse Williams perfected the techniques for the commercial manufacture of cheese. Up until that times all cheese and other dairy products were produced on individual farms. Production of quality cheese was a painstaking process, many of the home made products were mediocre and consequently the market for cheese, was small.
Jesse Williams did not patent his process; instead he shared his techniques with all in the interests of the general betterment of his rural NY neighbors. It took a few years for the new cheese factories to reach De Kalb. May 17, 1863 the first factory cheese manufactured in the. town was made at a factory at Richville Station (Bigelow).
Within a few years there were factories through out the township. These factories were small and sometimes they changed locations after only a few years. The majority of the factories produced cheddar cheese, butter cheese, or butter. The Maple Ridge Cheese factory produced a soft "Greek" cheese.
The ability to market dairy products transformed the agriculture of the town. In 1855 almost 2000 acres of grains other than oats were grown in De Kalb. By 1875 grain production was cut in half. In the same time period the number of milk cows in the town doubled to 5,295 and hay production went from 6,050 tons to 14,178 tons. The number of sheep in the town dropped from a high in 1865 of 2,801 to 1,083 in 1875.
One of the byproducts of the manufacture of cheese is whey. In the days of the neighborhood cheese factory, every farmer got their share of the whey to take home to feed hogs and calves. In 1855 there were 841 hogs in De Kalb by 1875 there were 1,506 hogs.
By 1878 according to the Canton Advertiser there were nine cheese factories in the Township of De Kalb. "The following comprise the list: The Schofield factory, Schofield and Alexander, proprietors, 1,000 cows situated 2 1/2 miles south of the Junction (Redrock) ; the Landon factory, E. H. Landon, proprietor, 500 cows, De Kalb Village; the Howard factory, C.H. Howard proprietor, 500 cows, near Kendrew church, in the north part of the town; the Barker factory, John Barker, proprietor, 500 cows, Richville village; the Bichey factory, Frank Bichey proprietor, 500 cows, Richville Depot (Bigelow) ; the Beard factory, Isaac Beard, proprietor, 400 cows, two miles east of the Junction; the Roulston Factory, James Roulston, proprietor, 400 cows, West De Kalb, and three miles from the Junction: the Breese factory, Abner Breese, proprietor, 500 cows, south of the Junction; the Holland factory, John Holland proprietor, 400 cows, five miles west of the Junction; the Maple Ridge Factory, 250 cows, R. T. Conant proprietor, seven miles from the Junction; the Upton factory, at East De Kalb, S.W. Hemingway proprietor, 90 cows."
In most neighborhoods the farmers banded together to market the cheese and help with other facets of managing the local factory. This was a natural outgrowth of the local farmers work circles. A typical example was March 29th 1882 the Howard factory elected officers: Laurel Wells, president; Dorr Stone secretary; Leander Chase salesman; C. P. Woodcock, treasurer; Mr. Lalone maker. They voted to pay members $1.10 per 100 pounds of cheese.
These cheese factories were a tremendous boost to the local economy. One newspaper account from 1878 bragged that the cheese from the Landon and Howard factories produced from August to the end of the season had just been sold to a buyer putting $8,000 into the local economy.
The era of the neighborhood cheese factory in De Kalb reached its peak about 1900 when there were 12 factories in the town. With the arrival of the automobile and better roads it became possible to reliable transport milk longer distances. The high agricultural prices before and during WW I lead to the entry of big companies such as Borden and Sheffield into the local cheese manufacturing market. They were able to offer higher prices to local farmers and the neighborhood cheese factories began to close. By the late 1920' s refrigeration and pasteurization led to the development of the modern fluid milk market.
The hard economic times of the great depression lead to the closure of most of the independent factories. The last two independent factories to operate in the Town of De Kalb were Floyd Denesha's factory at Old De Kalb which closed in the 1958 and Redrock which burnt in March 1970.
American Agriculturalist, 1951
100 Years Ago Jesse Williams Founded Our Cheese Industry Ithaca, NY.
Everts, L.H. 1878 History of St Lawrence Co., New York Philadelphia, P A.
New York State 1845 New York State Census 1845 Albany, NY.
New York State 1855 New York State Census 1855 Albany, NY.
New York State 1865 New York State Census 1865 Albany, NY.
St Lawrence County Historical AssociationAgricultural File Canton, NY.
Town of De Kalb Historical Association De Kalb Clipping Book 1866 to 1907 De Kalb Junction, NY.