Discover WNY’s Cheese Making History
Grab a Slice of History in Allegany County
Several weeks ago I ventured down to Cuba NY with my daughter and youngest son to learn about the early cheese making industry in our area. About 100 years ago Cuba, located in AlleganyCounty about a two hour drive from Buffalo, was considered the “CheeseCenter of the World.” In the 1880’s there were about 1,500 neighborhood cheese factories in New York State, and the national price for cheddar cheese was established each Wednesday by a group of men who met each week at Cuba’s Hotel Kenney.
The best way to learn about Cuba’s cheese making history is at the CubaCheeseMuseum, which is open weekends May to October. This museum, which was established in 2004 by Nico van Zwanenberg and John Nease, gives visitors an overview of the early cheese and dairy industry in western New York, with artifacts and exhibits illustrating the evolution of cheese and dairy production.
Since cheese production has changed greatly over the years, the goal of the museum is to preserve the history of cheese making, as well as the artifacts used in the process for current and future generations.
As you step inside the museum, one of the first displays you see is a timeline related to the history of cheese making. As you venture further into the museum you’ll see some unique vintage equipment, such as a 1895 Mehring milking machine; because the first step in cheese making is obtaining the milk
In the early days milk had to be transported from the farm to the factory by horse and wagon in milk cans; the museum has a display of vintage metal milk cans. “In the late 1800’s, a cheese factory was built every seven miles,” said John Nease, Chairman of the board of the CubaCheeseMuseum. “The farmer would travel 3 ½ miles to the factory and 3 ½ miles back; that was a half-days journey in those days when they had to use a horse and wagon.” He added that as the farmer traveled his route, he’d stop by other farms to pick up their milk to go to the factory.
By the 1930’s trucks hauled the milk cans and by the 1950’s and 60’s, refrigerated trucks and storage tanks eliminated the need for milk cans and made it easier to transport milk to the factory. Milk could be stored for two days, so it didn’t have to be picked up daily.
Nease ushered me into one room of the museum that is devoted to the history of ice cream, buttermilk, and butter making. The equipment displayed here is what would typically be used to make these products for home consumption, rather than commercial production. I inquired about one particularly interesting looking contraption. “That’s a treadmill with a slosher attached,” said Nease. “The farmer would put a goat or dog on the treadmill and as the animal walked, the slosher, which was filled with milk, would move around and eventually you’d have butter.”
He also explained how people would keep their dairy products cold back then, in the days before refrigeration. “People would put the product in a crock, and then stick the crock in a spring to keep it cool.” He added, “Some people would even build their house over a spring so that they could have a room in their cellar with a spring in it.”
According to my kids, their favorite part of the museum was the two DVDs on how cheese is made, using actual footage shot in New YorkState cheese factories. The first film, “Cheddar Cheese in New York State,” is about 15 minutes long, the second, which is about Cuba’s Empire Cheese Company is about 12 minutes. Both films give a good overview on cheese making, both past and present.
Empire Cheese makes mozzarella and provolone in their Cuba plant. They have another plant in Skaneateles which makes cheddar cheese. Note that New YorkState cheddar gets its unique flavor because raw milk is used in the production.
The CubaCheeseMuseum also has a library, with all sorts of dairy and cheese related books; many of these were donated to the museum by CornellUniversity.
After seeing all that cheese in the videos we naturally had a taste for cheese. We were in luck that the Cuba Cheese Shoppe is located just a few blocks away. We did however, made the mistake of visiting it when we were hungry, so we ended up buying a lot more than we planned to!
The shop carries about 200 varieties of cheese, some made locally, others made elsewhere, along with candy, crackers, jams, jellies, mustards, and lots of unique kitchen items. Our basket quickly filled up. They even sell a “traveler’s pack,” filled with cheese and pepperoni, for people like us who can’t wait until we get home to have some cheese.
Other attractions in Cuba
The four-block South Street Historic District, along Route 305 just south of the cheese shop, has dozens of well-preserved Victorian era homes which are listed on both the state and national register of historic places. One of the most unique structures in this area is the Block Barn. This 50’ x 347’ cement building, which is completely fireproof, was constructed in 1909 by William Simpson to house his world-famous race horse McKinney. It is currently home to Empire City Farms.
If you like antiques, you may want to check out two large antique co-ops, which are located in Cuba. Cuba Antiques, just around the corner from the Cuba Cheese Shoppe, is a multi-dealer shop housed in a vintage brick building that features two floors of quality items. Just north of the downtown area, near Route I-86, is Our Olde Barn, a former dairy barn that has been converted into a flea market and antique co-op, which is open weekends only. They have all sorts of items, including furniture, collectibles, antiques, and more.
Recreational boaters and fishermen may want to check out the 500 acre Cuba Lake, located about two miles north of town. When it was built in 1858 as part of a canal system, it was the largest man-made lake ever built. Located near the spillway end of CubaLake on the Oil Spring Indian Reservation is the Seneca Oil Spring. A historic marker indicates the place where oil was first discovered in the United States in 1627.
The 7th annual Cuba Garlic Festival, September 17-18, will be held on the grounds of Empire City Farms (The Block Barn) 105 South Street, Cuba. www.cubagarlicfestival.com. The event features garlic-themed foods, wine & cheese tasting, cheese making demonstrations, craft vendors, tours, live music, crowning of the garlic king & queen, and more. Admission is $5.
The CubaCheeseMuseum will be hosting their annual fundraiser, a Beer and Cheese Festival, on Friday October 7. The event features beers and cheeses, along with German foods and homemade desserts.
If you go
CubaCheeseMuseum, 22 Water Street, Cuba, 585-968-5654, www.cubacheesemuseum.org
Cuba Cheese Shoppe, 53 Genesee Street, Cuba, 800-543-4938 www.cubacheese.com
Our Olde Barn, 5290 Maple Lane (Route 305), Cuba, 585-968-2259
Cuba Antiques, 6 Water Street, Cuba 585-968-0700
DirectionsFrom Buffalo, take Route 400 south, which turns into Route 16. Follow route 16 South until Route I-86; go east on I-86 to the Cuba exit and follow Route 305 to Cu