During one episode of “Seinfeld,” George goes on and on about how his life could not be more perfect.
He is at home, relaxing in his shorts and eating a block of cheese the size of a car battery. There is even a legend that the moon is made of cheese. Most of us would agree that life is better with cheese — no matter what the occasion. We welcome you to the fourth annual Little Falls Cheese Festival, and invite you to sample, indulge and enjoy cheese from 120-plus vendors; however, we feel compelled to caution you against copying George and eating a block of cheese the size of a car battery. In addition to cheese, please save room for our other agricultural products at the festival including garlic and dried tomatoes, and be sure to visit the artisan exhibits as well. While you indulge, it is worth considering Little Falls in the heyday of the movement of cheese.
Sheltered in a deep curved gorge along the main transportation route across New York, Little Falls became a manufacturing leader in the latter half of the 19th century.
The picturesque village was famous for its Herkimer County cheese throughout the United States and England. In 1860, nearly 11 million pounds of cheese were sold and shipped out of Little Falls. If bars of cheese were lined up side by side, they would have nearly reached from Little Falls to Albany and back! By 1871, that production grew more than six times to 68 million pounds, including exports to England.
For years, the dairy farmers of the Mohawk Valley either sold their cheese door-to-door or by word of mouth, or they might engage a cheese dealer who would visit each farm, negotiate the price and possibly advance a token amount of payment. Some dealers were fair, but others developed a reputation of being less than honest. Many buyers found it easier to meet the cheese vendors in town and then take tastings. Soon, Little Falls became the center of the cheese market. Beginning in 1861, Little Falls had an open air Monday market at the intersection of South Ann and Albany streets.
With the Industrial Revolution steaming ahead, the big cheese players gathered at the Evans House, across from the railroad depot, for the first meeting of the New York State Dairymen’s Board of Trade meeting on July 10, 1871.
Their primary purpose was to support the dairy farmers, and to determine the best methods to move their Herkimer County (mainly cheddar) cheese from the farmers to the buyers, while maintaining its freshness and taste.
The Evans family had purchased what would be the Evans House in 1869. The famous opera singer, Jenny Lind, was said to have performed there in 1851 and President-elect Abraham Lincoln had greeted the crowds on a brief railroad whistle stop in Little Falls in 1861. Following President Lincoln’s assassination, residents lined the tracks to pay their respects as Lincoln’s casket passed through the village on it way home to Illinois.
Having immigrated to the Mohawk Valley in 1848 from humble origins in Wales, William and Jane Evans and their son, Edward, had arrived in Little Falls in 1856. In the Evans’ rural hometown, artisans and farmers would bring their wares to the Tudor timber-framed Old Market Hall on Mondays. Area residents gathered to socialize and with a few shillings, buy or barter for cheese, butter, merino wool and vegetables. When in Little Falls, the Evans family envisioned that, by collaborating with prominent members of the agricultural community, the newspapers and the New York City dairy dealers, Little Falls could become the market town for the dairy farmers of the Mohawk Valley and later serve as a model for other New York communities.
NYS Dairymen’s Board of Trade meetings were held in the elegantly appointed ballroom of the Evans House. In 1871, a telegraph line was already strung from the Evans House to the nearby railroad depot. The Dairymen’s Board of Trade had a trading board in the ballroom only open to members. Upon arrival each cheese vendor would post their volume of cheese available for sale. The Evans’ telegraph link with New York City (and Europe) allowed for on-time market cheese per pound prices and volumes to be displayed on the board. This included the price of cheese in New York City, as well as at markets in London and Liverpool, England.
By working together, Mohawk Valley dairy farmers had leverage when negotiating with powerful New York City and Philadelphia cheese dealers.
Dealers’ practices of buying cheese on credit and offering cheese prices significantly below market price would now be exposed! The only surviving panoramic photograph of the first New York State Dairymen’s Board of Trade meeting in 1871 captured the excitement of it all. Center stage stood 33-year-old Edward W. Evans, shaded under his bowler hat. With perfect posture he was a mere 5-feet 4-inches. Others surrounded him standing tall, with dealers in top hats on the elevated landing of the Evans House; his parents and wife, watching from second story windows. Additionally, hundreds of Mohawk Valley cheese producers had gathered, some with their cheese delivery wagons, for this historic moment. They were there to recognize a new era in cheese marketing.
That day was a grand new beginning when the cheese world would look to Little Falls, a village of only 4,818 in 1860. Little Falls was shipping millions of pounds of cheese yearly. The collaborative efforts of the Evans’ and Mohawk Valley dairymen/women had catapulted Little Falls to the Cheese Capital of the World.
Diane Ptak is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society. This article was abstracted from a book to be published by the author next year. The proprietor of the Evans House, 1869-1908, Edward W. Evans, was the author’s great grandfather. The hotel, at 332 S. Ann St., was on the site of the present day Travelodge hotel.
This article was published in the Times Telegram July 12, 2018.