Osborn Lake Cheese Factory
by Bryan Thompson
The Osborn Lake Cheese factory was a fairly typical neighborhood cheese factory. Located in the far Northwest corner of the town of De Kalb, the factory was organized by a group of local farmers so they would have a local market for their milk. The factory was organized about 1887. The factory specialized in the manufacture of cheddar cheese.
The factory was a simple two story wooden building including living quarters of 3 or 4 rooms for the cheese maker on one side. All equipment was operated via belts and shafts from a vertical steam engine located in the cheese vat room.
A soft coal fired boiler was located in a boiler room beside a 22 foot drilled artesian well (the first drilled well in the neighborhood).
The factory opened each spring by early March and usually closed in the fall by early November. Fifty-gallon milk cans were brought to the factory by farm wagon each day. The cans were lifted from the wagons onto a raised platform with a boom and windlass. Here the milk was weighed then it ran through a gravity fed system of pipes to the cheese making room.
In the cheese room were two large steam heated vats for setting the milk. After the milk was heated to the appropriate temperature rennet was added and the curd allowed to set. When the curd had formed it was cut into pieces and pulled to one end of the vat with a special rake. The curd was then put through a steam powered curd mill and placed in cheese hoops where it was pressed into wheels with a hand press.
The whey was pumped out of the vat into a separator where any remaining cream was removed from the whey. The whey then went to a whey vat outside the factory. Each farmer was allowed to take home their share of whey when they dropped off milk. If the supply ran low the cheesemaker simple added a little more water to the whey. The whey cream was either churned into butter using the steam-powered churn or sold to Giffin’s factory in Depeyster.
A special steam heated paraffin stove, located in a small room off of the cheese room, was used to melt the wax for covering the cheeses. A hand-operated lift raised the cheeses to the second floor of the factory where they were stored for curing. The neighborhood boys loved to sneak into the loft and sample plugs of cheese using the tryer.
In the fall it was the farmers responsibility to help with marketing the cheese. Wooden cheese boxes were purchased from a mill in Depeyster. Each 40 pound cheese was packed in it's own box. The boxes were labeled "Osborn Lake Cheddar Cheese" with a copper stencil and ink roller. The packaged cheeses were then pushed down a chute to the waiting farmer's wagon. Teams hauled the full wagons to market in Depeyster at Giffin's factory or to the Railroad at Heuvelton. After the first year it became obvious the factory needed more patrons, so in April 1888, the neighbors banded together and built a new town road connecting Rock Island Rd. and Maple Ridge Rd.. This road, known as The New Crossover Rd. or Maple Ridge and Osbornville Rd. was opened in 1888. After it opened the Osbornville factory drew patrons from as far as Warren Foster's on Colton Rd., Roy Corbin's on Maple Ridge Rd. and Spooner's on the Chandlerville Rd..
The cheese factory became a community meeting place. Farmers would meet each day as they delivered their milk to share the news. On rainy days they would linger and visit. School children would hitch rides on the milk wagons as they walked to school. The Osborn Lake factory sported the first radio in the neighborhood. Neighbors gathered on the lawn to listen to Jack Dermpsey fight.
The factory was never a very profitable operation. Cheese makers came and went, sometimes yearly (see operators below). Perhaps the most famous maker was Fred Goodison who went on to become vice president of the Farmer's Union. Much of the equipment was purchased second hand and the boiler was always in need of repair or replacement. When repairs were necessary the farmers all had to pitch in. The last cheese maker was Carl Venton who made the last Osborn Lake cheddar in the fall of 1930.
In 1893 D. G. Hurlbut was paid $. 75 per hundred weight of milk at the Osbornville factory. By 1931 Sheffield's was offering more than the local maker could pay. The Osborn Lake factory couldn't compete in the hard times of the depression. The cheese making equipment was sold off and the factory was torn down. One more piece of a neighborhood community disappeared.
De Kalb Town Clerk n.d. Miscellaneous Highway Record Book p. 171,172, 204,205.
St Lawrence County Clerk's Office 1931 Abstract#10096.
Thompson, Donald and Clinton 1995 Interview Tape Collection of Town of De Kalb Historical Association.