Come learn how Rome, NY native Jesse Williams’ vision would forever change the way cheese was produced in the United States
On Feb 8, 2023, Patrick Reynolds, Director of Public Programs at the Oneida County History Center will discuss the origin of the Cheese Factory System.
Just North of Rome, at the site of the current New York State Fish Hatchery, the modern cheese industry was born in 1851. Jesse Williams was a successful farmer and cheese maker but believed by working together as cooperative dairies, farmers could maximize their profits. This led him to start the first cheese factory in the United States, a move that revolutionized agriculture not only locally, but across the nation.
Jesse Williams was born in Rome in 1798 and like his father became a farmer. Although there was considerable cheese making going on in New York, its market value suffered from inconsistency. Jesse objected to the quality as well as the lack of uniformity in size. To address these issues, he invented machinery and equipment that guaranteed high quality cheese made in uniform sizes. 1851 marked the first year he combined the milk from his own farm with that of his son’s farm. From that small partnership grew the cheese factory industry.
He built the first cheese factory in the United States at “Highland Mills” adjacent to the current fish hatchery. Soon dozens of area dairy farmers were delivering their milk to him to make cheese. The first year he produced 100,000 pounds of cheese and was an immediate success. Quickly his ideas spread to other sections of the country and the world.
As news spread of Williams’ success, dairymen from across the country flocked to Rome to learn about the new process. Williams and his wife answered as many questions as they could to spread the gospel of cooperative cheese making. Within 15 years, there were 500 such factories in New York alone. In 1864, Williams’ success led to the formation of the New York State Cheesemaker’s Association, which soon thereafter became the American Dairy Association.
On the 100th anniversary of Jesse’s cheese factory, John H. Kraft, president of Kraft Foods, proclaimed that “pioneers like Jesse Williams… [fathered] the ideas and tools that have made America great.” This man, Kraft said, “exemplified the spirit which has made the dairy industry the largest agricultural industry in America.”
Jesse Williams died in 1864 at age 67. At that time Oneida County was making over eight million pounds of cheese per year. Williams never patented his cheese-making inventions but gave them to the agricultural world.
The program, which starts at 7 PM, is free and open to everyone.