Just North of Rome, at the site of the current New York State Fish Hatchery, the modern cheese industry is said to have been 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 what is believed to be 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 contributed inventions and innovations in machinery and equipment that guaranteed higher quality cheese made in more uniform sizes. 1851 marked the first year he combined the milk from his own farm with that of his son’s farm.
He built his cheese factory at what was known as 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.
As news spread of Williams’ success quickly spread, dairymen from across the country flocked to Rome, NY, to learn about the new process. Williams and his wife answered questions and 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.” 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 innovations.
Illustration: Engraving from Harper’s Magazine of Williams’ cheese factory.