Until the post Civil War era, the production of cheese in Orange County, New York, was limited to local farms where housewives produced cheese goods primarily for home consumption.
It was not until 1873 that Julius Wettstein, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany with his wife Matilda and their children, started a cheese factory in Monroe. His business featured a fine line of German, French and Swiss type cheeses.
Wettstein was amply rewarded for the long hours expended in building his company. He acquired a solid business reputation and his cheeses commanded a high market price. Because Wettstein’s wife Matilda was in poor health she returned to Germany with their four children and he remained behind to dispose of his cheese holdings.
The cheese factory was sold in February 25, 1878 and Wettstein stayed on until May to train the new cheesemakers in the craft before he returned to his native Germany. He was paid $3 a day for his services in training and consulting. On May 2, 1878, Julius Wettstein sailed for Germany on one of the Bremen Steamers, leaving behind “a good record for his public spirit and his courtesy as a friend and neighbor.”
For $16,000 the new owners, Messrs. Gross & Co., had purchased Wettstein’s Monroe complex, which included a two story frame house, a two story factory, a barn, two carriages, one truck, one black horse and equipment, as well as the rights to and formula for a cheese known as “Fromage de Brie.”
Lena Gross, the principal owner of the new business, and the cheesemakers, Leonard R. Gross, John Hoff and August Gross, operated the business for six years. Then on October 15, 1884, they sold the company, including the buildings, equipment and trademarks “Fromage de Brie,” “neuchatel,” and “d’Isigny” for $25,000 to Adolphe Tode and Ferdinand Wolfe.
Four years later, 1888, a young cheesemaker, Emil Frey, began working in Tode and Wolfe’s cheese factory. Frey was born in Switzerland in 1867, and had come to the United States with his father who was a farmer and cheesemaker. In 1887 the younger Frey worked briefly for the Neuesswanders Cheese Factory at Slaterytown, in the Town of Blooming Grove, and by the following year was employed at the Monroe cheese works.
One of the owners, Adolphe Tode, was also the owner of the famous Manhattan Delicatessen. In 1889 Tode challenged his cheesemakers to make a domestic Bismarck cheese because much of this delicate cheese spoiled in transit when it was imported, due to a lack of adequate refrigeration. The ambitious Frey experimented for two years before he stumbled on a new product.
It was a gold crusted, soft ripening spreadable cheese which prompted Mr. Tode’s message to Frey to stop trying to imitate Bismarck, and instead, send more of the last batch. The new cheese was to become much more popular than Bismarck. After remaining nameless for a time, the cheese was christened “Liederkranz” after the famous New York City Singing Society, whose members included Theodore Roosevelt, Leopold Damrosch,and Jacob Ruppert.
Liederkranz, meaning “Wreath of Songs” has been the name of this cheese ever since, except during a brief period in World War I when they decided to name it “LaVatel” in honor of a French chef. So many protests were received that the name Liederkranz was hastily reinstated.
By 1891 Adolphe Tode had serious financial problems and the cheese company property was foreclosed upon by the Goshen Savings Bank. Jacob Weisl a New York City Wholesale grocer purchased the property from the bank. The Weisl family would successfully guide the company through its next 38 years until they sold it to the Bordens.
The success of Liederkranz can be measured in its sales: it was reported in the Monroe Gazette of May 15, 1915 that over 1000 boxes of Liederkranz were shipped from the factory in a two day period. As each box weighed five pounds, the shipment amounted to two and a half tons for those two days. It further reported that the averaged over a ton each day lately.
The company was located on Stage Road, not far from the Sacred Heart R.C. Church. Many of the immigrant workers lived in homes or boarding houses across the pond along or near Oakland Avenue in the vicinity called “Brooklyn.” A number of these boarding houses were situated on what is now park land and were demolished years ago. The cheese company contributed wood for the construction of a bridge across the pond to “Brooklyn” as a short cut to the other side for the workers and for the public. Each winter the ice would destroy or damage the bridge, and so it would be repaired by the men at the plant. If one drives down Oakland Avenue today he will see a street named Bridge Street, yet few Monroe residents know that this was named for the “Brooklyn Bridge.”
The cheese company contracted with the Edmund Hawxhurst family for cheese mats manufactured from reeds woven on looms. Occasionally the company brought over its whey which was fed to the pigs raised on the Hawxhurst farm. When their mats became damaged the company would send them back to the Hawxhurst family for re-weaving. Daughter Helen married Emery J. Streeter who was once employed by the Harriman Industrial Corporation making cheese boxes for the company.
In 1915 the Monroe Cheese Company established a second plant in Covington, Pennsylvania, which was just as large as the Monroe factory. There was a more abundant milk supply there and the company concentrated on the manufacture of Swiss cheese under the brand name EMISCO. Emil Frey was sent to Covington to start up and take charge of this operation; he returned to Monroe with his family the following year.
Over the course of the next two years Emil Frey experimented at home on his stove and developed a new process, which would be named Velveeta. The Swiss cheese from the Covington plant that was misshapen or broken was salvaged and returned to Monroe.
In October 1919 the Monroe Cheese Company purchased from Borden the creamery in Oxford Depot for further expansion of its operations. This plant was sold in 1926 to the Dairyman’s League of Utica.
Max O. Schaefer, who headed the Monroe Cheese Company for a number of years, helped build its sales to the point where the cheese was sold in practically every hotel and restaurant in America and some European countries. He was also a driving force behind the Monroe racetrack, as he served as President of the Monroe Driving Park Association. Two years after his death in October 1925 as a result of an automobile accident, the last races were run at the Monroe track.
In January 1926 the Monroe Cheese Company announced that it was closing its Monroe and Covington plants and was moving its operations to Van Wert, Ohio, where milk was more abundant. Farms in the Monroe area were starting to dwindle, as a number of them were being purchased by non-farmers, and others started taking in boarders instead of cows.
The Monroe plant employed up to 40 persons and the Covington plant hired up to 30 persons. Many of the employees left these prior to the closing, although all employees were offered a position in the Van Wert plant. The new plant would be 60′ x 800′, costing $150,000 and employing 50 workers.
Mr. and Mrs. Emil Frey, their daughter Mildred, Mr. & Mrs. George Todt, and daughter Janice, and Mr. and Mrs. Leroy Galloway shut down the plant office of the Monroe Cheese Company and moved to Van Wert in July 1926. They joined Michael Todt and Gerhard Wehage who had preceded them. The following November the new Monroe Cheese Company factory was dedicated. Invitations were extended to the general public and fully 4,000 persons accepted. They listened to speeches, toured the plant and tasted the cheese.
When the new plant opened, the managers discovered that the first batch of cheese was nothing like Liederkranz. Frey sent back to Monroe for the old shelving and other woodwork, and had them rushed to Van Wert. The microscopic organism that gives the cheese its distinctive flavor was not yet present in the facility. They smeared the cheese cultures on the walls of the Van Wert plant. When they put the next batch of milk through the process, they again had the true flavor of Liederkranz. The end of the Monroe Cheese Company name came in 1929 when Carl Weisl, President of the firm, announced from the New York City office that the company was being sold to Borden Company.
However, this was not the end of Emil Frey’s involvement in cheese making. As mentioned earlier, the Velveeta Cheese Company was incorporated on February 14, 1923, as a separate company. This company announced in March 1926 that it would remain in Monroe and the directors purchased the holdings for the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe village. They also installed rail siding and an underground cellar by the Erie Freight house.
In 1927 the Velveeta Cheese Company was sold to Kraft.
The Velveeta Cheese Company sold the Monroe plant to Ray and Joseph George who started a bottling works for natural fruit beverages. In July 1932 the New York State Police raided the building and found a still, which is another type of natural beverage which was much more popular than the former. Since then the structure has been home to Calverts who operated a button factory, and to the operators of a dress factory, a machine shop, a retail beer and soda establishment, as well as an auto parts store, a nursery school, and an apartment.
Although the Monroe Cheese Company ended in 1929. Liederkranz cheese grew in sales for the Borden company. Emil Frey was employed as the general manager until 1938, when he retired, though he frequently visited the plant and continued to supervise the making of his favorite cheese. The Van Wert plant expanded as Borden added other types of cheese and by 1945 it was the largest cheese factory in the world.
Emil Frey died on January 11, 1951, and never knew the fate of his famous Liederkranz. When fire damaged part of the Van Wert plant in June 1973, it included the area where Liederkranz was produced, curtailing production for several months. Eight and a half years later, on December 18, 1981, the Borden company closed the Van Wert plant. It was no longer going to manufacture natural cheese. In the future it would be offering only process cheese. Six months later, June 1982, the Fisher Cheese Company bought the Van Wert plant. It started to produce Liederkranz in a small section of the plant prior to the purchase. In August 1985 the Fisher Cheese Company discovered bacterial contamination in a batch of Liederkranz, and withdrew it from the market. This contamination was also found in other cheeses it produced. That was the last time Liederkranz was made, and the Beatrice Foods Company now owns the rights to the formula for this famous cheese created by Emil Frey In Monroe, New York.
On June 10, 1989 the Monroe Historical Society honored the Monroe Cheese Company, Liederkranz, Velveeta and those who served her so faithfully through the years at the site of the former factory on the Mill Pond Parkway. The ceremony was attended by a large number of local residents, including some who once worked for the Monroe Cheese Company. A marker was donated and unveiled by Robert Frey, (son of Emil Frey) and Dave Leising of Lowell, Michigan.
The History of Cheese Making in Monroe was researched and authored by James A. Nelson. Mr. Nelson holds the appointed position of Monroe Town Historian and is the Treasurer of the Monroe Historical Society. He has been a life long resident of Monroe.