This city is made of cheese: Early industry in Rome

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When we imagine early Rome, the fertility of the land is never in question: nestled between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, there’s an air of mythology here that references Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent. The city’s fertility is written in the dark, rich soil of the Muck, in the verdant foliage the creeps outward from every crack in the sidewalk, and plethora of wildlife we find, even within our busy city limits.

This liveliness is natural, and it drew farmers to this land well over two hundred years ago in the early 1800s. Grains and vegetables grew aplenty, not only to feed the growing towns, but also to feed the dairy cows dotting the landscape. Between the increasing population and the cows that multiplied under such fertile circumstances, it’s not surprising that there was an unexpected surplus of one very perishable good: cow’s milk.

It’s this surplus of farmers, dairies, cows, and milk that, in a strangely direct way, established Rome as an industrial little town and paved the way for Rome as an industrial city.

In an era without refrigeration, there were limited options of what to do with excess milk before it spoiled. The most popular method of using up the milk supply would be the production of cheese, which was, and is, a very salable item.

However, with each farmer making his own cheese, results varied from farm to farm—not everyone had the requisite skills for making a reliably good supply of cheese. Some farmers, though, were skilled enough to be able to replicate their product time and time again. Such was the case for one Jesse Williams, the father of modern cheese production.  

Jesse Williams and his wife Amanda, as many may remember, is famous for establishing the very first cheese factory of its kind in the United States in 1851 at Hyland’s Mills, near to Rome. His family farm is located on Williams Road, close to Fish Hatchery Road. This location has also been known as Hicks’ Mills and Parker’s Mills.

Using processing and cheese making equipment he designed himself, Williams would use milk brought in by local farmers, turn it into cheese, and then sell it at market. Prior to this, the few cheese factories that operated in the U.S. purchased cheese curds, and not milk, from farmers, and used this to make cheese. Williams’ was a strong system, minimizing wasted milk and maximizing consistent cheese production—a rarity in this rather unprocessed and utterly unregulated era of early American industry.  

This sort of specialization of labor allowed for a nice cycle of business to form: farmers focused on producing good milk from healthy cows, Jesse Williams bought it and produced reliable, high quality cheese, which customers then gladly purchased. In 1864, Williams’ success led to the formation of the New York State Cheesemaker’s Association, which soon thereafter became the American Dairy Association. This association would assume control of the cheese factory upon Williams’ death in 1864.

It is Williams’ success that we may credit with bringing to the Mohawk Valley another family focused on cheese production: the McAdam family of Scotland. Robert McAdams was already famous in Scotland for his cheddar cheese, as well as for a booklet he wrote about improved methods of cheese making.  

In 1866, Robert and four sons moved to the Mohawk Valley to get in on the local cheese production. In a short span of time, twelve trips between the U.S. and Scotland were made, each time bringing over more men to work in the cheese industry. Unlike Williams, McAdam took to opening numerous little factories in various Central New York locations, like Lee, Cherry Valley, and many others.

After establishing the headquarters of Robert McAdam and Sons in Rome in 1875, McAdam took a different approach to the cheese industry of Rome, New York by introducing American cheese into the UK market. This greater market led to more success for Rome’s dairy farmers and cheese makers, as well as for others in the Mohawk Valley region. In Little Falls, a dairy machinery factory by the name of D.H. Burrell was opened; they even had a warehouse in Rome, for all the local business they received.

From here, cheese production only increased. The Mohawk Valley’s high quality cheese production was so well received abroad, it has been noted, that it had an impact on European cheese prices.  

Jesse Williams’ cheese factory methodology, the export savvy of Robert McAdam, and the skills of the others that followed paved the way for further industry to sprout and take root in Rome. In this modern age, it’s no wonder that we see so many local dairies making and marketing their own finely aged and historically laden product, right here in this beautiful region.

This column was compiled for the Rome Historical Society by Caitlin Matwijec, Rome Historical Society Museum Educator. This column is based on “The Industrial Development of Rome,” by Robert M. Lake, 1969 and “Jesse Williams: Cheesemaker,” by Frederick A. Rahmer, 1971. Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or proposed guest columns may be emailed to: educator@romehistoricalsociety.org.

The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org or call 336-5870 for information.

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