A Taste of Cheese ...
In a speech at the 1821 County Fair, before the Lewis County Agricultural Society, Judge Stow emphasized the importance of cheese quality made in the County. By around 1840, milk became the the leading agricultural product in Lewis County (12,000 cows). By 1865, 32 cheese factories (employing 55 men and 63 women) produced 4,755,043 pounds of cheese.
The first cheese and butter that was sold from Lewis County was in 1833 by Levi Bowen. Levi Bowen had made this cheese and butter on his 75 acre farm (just off the West Road) and took it to Deerfield (near Utica, NY). A produce dealer gave him five cents a pound for the cheese and nine cents a pound for the butter.
Horace A. Rees and Lewis H. Folts established a cheese business in Lowville in 1865. This three story building facilited an annual production of 250,000 pounds of cheese. Mr. Rees became an expert cheese maker and a Dairy Inspector for New York State. He made the first of his big cheese in 1912 and culminated his career with the manufacturing of the famous twelve ton cheese in 1921.
The Gowdy Factory in West Martinsburg became the best known of the original cheese factories in Lewis County. Established by Francis C. Goudy in 1872, it remained in operation through half of the twentieth
century (closed in 1959). Following World War I, visitors came from miles around to watch the cheese being made and to purchase cheese curds. It was designated as the site for the production of the big cheese made for the New York State Department of Agriculture until this project was discontinued in 1938.
In the 1880’s, cheese making was a major industry. There were several small cheese plants throughout Lewis County. Nearly every town and village in the county had numerous cheese plants. Many visitors came to see the cheese making and to buy cheese and cheese curd.
In 1900, Brayton B. and his father, Leon S. Miller, built and operated the Lowville Cold Storage Plant. This plant was enlarged three times and was said to have been the largest cheese cold storage plant in the world. The local cheese factories shipped their cheese to the Lowville storage plant where it was paraffined and then shipped all over the United States. Some of the cheese was stored and not shipped. In 1965, it was known to have the capacity to store 7,000,000 pounds of cheese.
Due to the several cheese factories in Lewis County, it was a popular scene to see the farmers hauling their milk to the local cheese factories during the months of April to November. From November to April, the milk was used to make butter or to feed calves for the veal market.
In 1902, Lewis County had its first milking machines where two cows could be milked at the same time. Prior to 1902, milking was done by hand.
With the continued progress in, farming equipment, seeds such as grass, clover, and corn, barns, and breeding of cows the size of the farms grew larger.
Cheese was being displayed and promoted by the New York State Department of Agriculture. “Big Cheese” was being displayed at agricultural events and at the New York State Fair. In 1908, a cheese weighing 2,247 pounds was displayed from the Sulphur Spring factory and in 1909, a cheese weighing 2,175 pounds was displayed from the Houseville factory at the fair.
In 1913, Herbert E. Cook and his brother sent the first bottle of certified milk out of Lewis County.
About 1915, Samuel L. Hirschey and his brother, Urban, C. Hirschey, were making cheese boxes in Denmark, Lewis County. In 1939, this business was moved to the Climax Fibre Drum Co. in Carthage. Cheese boxes were being made for the cheese that was displayed at the New York State Fair.
In 1915, at the San Francisco Exposition, Lewis County exhibited a 5 1/2 ton cheese which was made in the West Martinsburg factory.
In 1916, cheese was selling at nineteen cents a pound.
In 1917, during World War I, cheese was sixty cents for 2 pounds, butter was 4 pounds for $2.00
In 1918, a cheese weighing over a ton was made in Lewis County and sold at a milk exposition in the Grand Central Palace, New York City.
In 1921, the Goudy Factory made a 12 ton cheese for the New York State Fair.
Once milk receiving plants were established in the 1920’s along the railroad, many of the local cheese plants were closing. Milk was being shipped elsewhere instead of being delivered by the farmers to the several local cheese plants.
In 1927, the Goudy Factory was bought by Wesley Alexander who conituned the “Big Cheese” tradition. He made cheese for the fair in the following years: 1929, 1933, 1937, and the last being in 1938.
In 1928, Kraft was buying several of the local cheese factories that had remained open, including the Lowville Cheese Company. In 1929, Kraft also purchased the Lowville Milk and Cream Company. Kraft purchased the Lowville cold storage plant, which became known as the Miller Richardson Cheese Company, subsidiary of the Kraft Phenix Cheese Company. Then in 1934, the offices of the company were moved from the Miller building on Shady Avenue to offices in the Cold Storage Plant east of lower Park Avenue and south of the Co-op feed mill. In 1940 the name of Miller Richardson Cheese Company was changed to Kraft Cheese Company.
“Big Cheese” continued to be displayed at the New York State Fair. In 1938, two six-ton cheese were shown in Syracuse at the fair by the Wesley Alexander factory.
In later years, the “Big Cheese” shown at the state fair was made by the newer, larger, and more modern cheese plant, of Hoffman and Dudo, in the town of New Bremen. This plant was operating in 1948. It turned 2,000,000 pounds of milk into cheese in one summer season. Close to this plant was a plant used for turning the whey which was leftover from the making of the cheese, into feed for calves.
Many of the remaining smaller cheese factories, during and after World War II, continued to either close or consolidate into larger plants.
The Wesley Alexander cheese plant was known to be the last of the “old time cheese plants” in Lewis County. It was closed in 1959.