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The Adirondacks’ Cheesy History

New York’s cheese industry began in the 18th century and demand for the product beyond the Empire State influenced the building of the Black River and Erie Canals. One side of the business, though, is often overlooked: the role of women in creating a superior product. In the 1865 state agricultural census Lewis County women outnumbered men as employees in the 30-plus factories.

How Women Can Make Money, Married or Single was published as New York was on the verge of modernizing cottage industries of all kinds, and the book is packed with useful advice as well as cogent observations. Though there were factories, prosperous farms produced quantities of cheese for sale locally and regionally. More than 85 percent of farmstead cheesemakers were female, and if they were hired girls they received housing at the dairy farms plus decent wages of two dollars per week during the March through November season. “Women are best adapted to the work, and employed mostly because they can be got cheaper…. They are usually put on a footing by their employers, and eat at the same table. So little spinning and weaving are done now in the country that the female members of the farmers’ families generally do the milking, unless the farmers have grown too wealthy and proud to have their wives and daughters so employed,” according to the 1861 treatise.

Cheese played a role in health too, and not just for its calcium and protein content. In The Domestic Companion, published in 1839, author Esther Tuttle suggested women add herbs like peppermint and sage to cheese for treating digestive and other ailments. To keep hard cheese longer, “the rind should be coated with whey butter and beeswax,” she advised. In the days before refrigeration, hard cheese was kept at room temperature; this extra step helped prevent mold and harmful bacteria from penetrating the wheel.

During the late 19th century demand for cheese was so great that factories employing men and women were constructed throughout the state, often near canals or rail lines. In 1877 St. Lawrence County producers filled 91 railroad cars with cheese destined for urban markets. The center of cheddardom was Herkimer County; many hard white cheeses became known as Herkimer even if they were made in Wisconsin. One signature cheese presentation—the nut-covered cheese ball that has graced so many suburban soirees—was invented in Herkimer County in the early 1950s.

In 2007 a Florida couple embarked on a serious quest: to cover thousands of miles and more than 150 years of dairying. The result, The Summer of a Thousand Cheeses, sketches the “Adirondack crescent,” a swath of the North Country stretching from the Mohawk Valley through Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties.

To learn about Adirondack artisan cheesemaking today read “Culture Club” in the May/June 2012 issue.

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