Economic pressures on farmers are nothing new. For agriculture, the Great Depression did not begin in late 1929, but eight years earlier, when farm products began to decline in price while agricultural inputs headed in the other direction.
The lengthiest economic decline for farmers began in the early 1870s and persisted for a generation, until the late 1890s. Many farmers, with large mortgages, were forced off the land in that period when they could not meet payments.
Activists formed self help and political groups such as the Grange and the Patrons of Industry to advance the place of agriculture in the economy. Another strategy was to find ways to increase the value of what farmers sold. In some areas of Ontario farmers embraced the cheese industry and the making of cheddar cheese for the export market as a method of increasing their income.
During the late 1870s cheese making became important in two areas of Ontario: the area north of Belleville, largely in Hastings County, and a roughly oval area embracing portions of Oxford, Perth, and Waterloo Counties that extended into Wellington County in Peel, Maryborough, and Minto Townships.
There were more than a dozen cheese factories in those three townships, and their histories are generally well known. There were a few cheese factories in Wellington outside that belt. One was the Rockwood Cheese Factory. Little is known about that operation other than newspaper accounts of some of its annual meetings.
Some of the cheese factories from that period were owned and operated by an individual entrepreneur, but collective ownership was more common, with shares held by local farmers, most of whom supplied milk to the operation. A few operated as true cooperatives.
In 1900, there were about 1,200 cheese factories in Ontario, the vast majority small operations employing one or two men.
Export markets became troublesome after 1900, in the face of tariffs and competition on the European market from Denmark Ontario cheese makers began to develop local markets for their cheese. Some began producing butter and bottled milk.
Despite tighter markets, most of the cheese factories survived until World War I, which totally disrupted the export markets that had sustained the Ontario cheese industry.
Some factories survived the war, only to encounter pressure from large corporate cheese makers, which further decimated their numbers.
Cheese factories in the 1880 to 1914 period operated only during the months when farmers’ dairy herds could be pastured outside, from May until September or October. They relied on hired cheese makers, whose skills were very much in demand. They also contracted with one or several carriers, who picked up fresh milk at farm gates in large metal cans and delivered them to the factory.
The Rockwood Cheese Factory had its origins in the late 1870s, and was located at Lot 21, Concession 7, to the north of Rockwood. The first mention of the operation is in the 1880 Ontario government Report on Agriculture. That report resulted in the formation of the provincial Department of Agriculture, and in its published form is the key document in late 19th century Ontario agriculture.
At the time of the report, the Blanchfield family owned the farm where the cheese factory was located. However, it is not marked on the map in the 1877 County Atlas. In the 1890s, the Guelph Weekly Mercury carried accounts of the annual meetings of the factory. Those vary in their completeness, but some of them provide a useful glimpse of the size of the operation.
The 1897 newspaper account is one of the more complete ones. The Rockwood Cheese Factory met on the afternoon of March 5, with attendance described as “fair.” A motion from the floor authorized Robert Dredge to take the chair. Secretary of the factory was Hugh Black. This is almost certainly Hugh Black, of Fergus, who was a produce and cattle dealer based in Fergus
He had a large grain elevator there, and shipped cattle and grain from various other railway stations.
Statements read that day showed that, over the 1896 season, the cheese factory had received 717,400 pounds of milk, with the peak month being June, with 185,000 pounds. The cheese maker, who was not named, reported that a pound of cheese required between 9.6 and 11.6 pounds of milk, with higher butterfat content toward the end of the season.
Over the course of the 1896 season the Rockwood Cheese Company produced 66,400 pounds of cheese, a respectable volume compared to other rural cheese making operations of the period, but minuscule in the context of cheese making operations a century later.
Farmers received between 6.5 cents and 9.6 cents per pound, with prices rising through the summer as butterfat content rose. Sale of the cheese, probably through Black’s wholesale operation, brought in slightly more than $5,300. Of that, $4,125 went to the farmers supplying milk. Transportation, consisting of wagon pick-up of milk and freight on outgoing cheese, ate up $423. Cheese making expenses were listed as $664, while salaries and expenses totalled $122. It is certain that the bulk of the production costs consisted of the salary of the cheese maker, with the $122 amount covering the costs of auditors and office expenses.
The figures contain no mention of a dividend, so it seems that the factory operated as a cooperative, with returns to the owning farmers included in their payments for milk. The factory seems to have accepted milk from non-members or non-shareholders as well. The report notes that “Those who continued as patrons of the factory for the whole season were well satisfied with the result.”
The meeting concluded with elections for the board of directors. President for the 1897 was John Taylor. Directors for the year were John Jolliffe, S.V. Ostrander, James Black, James W. Bucham, James Gray, John Tolton, and R. Pasmore. Most are well-known names in the history of Eramosa Township. Hugh Black agreed to continue for another year as secretary-treasurer.
It is obvious hat no farmer grew rich supplying milk to cheese factories in the 1890s. Average returns seem to be in the range of $100 to $200 per year for the suppliers. On the other hand, the cheese factories did offer a market for milk.
The other alternative for farmers with dairy cattle was to make butter, and trade it at a store for goods required by the family. By the 1890s, that market was declining. There was no quality control, and the public by then was becoming more concerned about quality. Many consumers, anxious to avoid rancid or contaminated butter, preferred to buy the products of a well-known maker.
There is much that is not known about the Rockwood Cheese Company: Did the operation sell any cheese directly to local consumers or through stores in the neighbourhood? If so, were prices the same as the wholesale prices for major shipments? How did the quality of the cheese compare with that from the factories in the “cheese belt”?
Another question concerns whey, the leftover product after the cheese has been made, but one rich in minerals and nutrients. Nineteenth century farmers valued it as a food supplement for hogs. But there is no mention in the Rockwood factory reports to suggest if whey was returned to the supplying farmers or sold to hog producers.
The Rockwood Cheese Company is one of the fascinating business ventures of late 19th century Wellington County. Perhaps some readers have more information about the operation in their family papers or passed down through the generations as family lore.