Cheese factory origins

Origins of cheese making

For nearly 100 years, the cheese industry dominated agriculture in Ontario. In the peak year; 1904, 243 million tons of cheese were exported to Great Britain.

When Canada's first European settlers cleared the land, the rural economy was based first on lumber and then on wheat and barley exports. Women looked after the cows, did the milking and made cheese and butter. Many of the immigrant women from England, Scotland, Ireland and the United Empire Loyalists from New York State knew how to make cheese. They came with their own traditions. One cannot keep milk without a fridge for long, but butter and cheese can be stored much easier.

Elizabeth Whitton moved  to Percy Township in Northumberland with her family in 1840. By 1849, Mrs. Whitton had persuaded her husband to let her make cheese in a small scale in a vat in the basement. She came from Wensleydale in Yorkshire, England. There is a long tradition of cheese making in Wensleydale, dating back to the 15th century when French Cistercian settled in the area. Elizabeth made cheese for her family and neighbours. She started Burnbrae Cheese Factory in Percy Township and then another cheese factory at Wellmans Corner in nearby Rawdon Township. This factory was Plum Hollow. 

Many other farmers’ wives and daughters were skilled cheese and butter makers. Lamira Billings and her daughters Sabra and Sally Billings sold their butter at the Bytown Market in Ottawa  “four or five women produced fifteen thousand pounds of cheese and an equal amount of butter from fifty-six cows.” 

Before the introduction of cheese factories, cheese and butter were exported to the United States and to the UK, although the quality was variable.

By the 1850s, men were starting  agricultural societies in Ontario. Their emphasis was on new machinery; such as reapers, binders and thrashing machines. There was little interest in dairying until the 1860s.  By then, much of the arable land in Ontario was exhausted. Farmers did not have many animals and could not put manure back on the fields. They were only beginning to use rotation and plant clover to fix nitrogen.

Cheese maker Harvey Farrington came to Oxford County from Herkimer County, New York State in 1864 and set up one of the first co-operative cheese factories in Ontario.  Farmers were working together in Herkimer County to make cheese. The land is suitable for grazing cattle, and they could send cheese to New York along the Erie Canal, which runs from Buffalo to Albany and the Hudson River.

The factory Harvey Farrington built was described as “a plain, neat-looking wood building – not costing, we should imagine, more than $1000 complete. On the ground floor; large, double vats in which the milk is placed. These that hold 400 to 500 gallons of milk. The milk is delivered by the farmers twice a day in hot weather and at the present season, in the morning only. They have been used during the present season and milk from 130 - 240 cows… Upstairs is a room which occupies the whole of the second story. It is devoted entirely to this purpose and is arranged with very ingeniously contrived stands to facilitate the turning of the cheeses. In this room, we found 200 cheeses, weighing about 80 lbs.each. Ten tons of cheese were produced in the first year and shipped directly to a dealer in England.

Dealers sent more and more butter, cheese, eggs and apples to Glasgow, Liverpool and London. Cheddar was the ideal cheese for export as it is a hard cheese. Several factories made soft cheeses early on, but once the export market developed, all switched to making the standard hard cheddar. Cheese maker D. M. MacPherson from Lancaster in Glen Garry shipped cheese to the UK. He developed strong wooden cheese boxes. The box had to fit the cheese to prevent the cheese from getting damaged on route.