Hidden History: Cheese depression ends success of Burlingame’s Western Reserve – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Cheese depression ends success of Burlingame’s Western Reserve

In the 1860s and beyond, Osage County was one of the most prolific cheese manufacturing areas in Kansas. Cheese production increased in the county when under the guidance of W.D. Canfield, a cheese factory was established at Burlingame, making the town an important cheese producer in the state.

When Canfield and Harvey Parker came to Kansas in 1873, they likely had every intention to establish a cheese factory the moment they settled in the town. Both men were natives of northeast Ohio known as the Western Reserve, Geuga and Portage counties, respectively.

The Western Reserve had long been one of the leading cheese producing locations in the United States, exporting so much cheese that it became known as “Cheesedom.” In 1860, Portage and Geuga counties had produced about 8.5 million pounds of cheese, selling at about 13 cents per pound in eastern and southern markets.

H.W. Parker in particular had gained extensive experience in the cheese industry and was ready to put it to use in Burlingame. A publication in 1872 promoting the success of a cheese factory system, coupled with a depression of the cheese economy in the Western Reserve, sent Canfield and Parker to Kansas, where they could produce a large quantity of cheese at a lesser price.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Burlingame and Osage County were already established as the leading producer of cheese in the state – Osage was the first county to give a thought to its production. John S. Bush and Gamaliel Kent, also from the cheese districts of New York and Ohio, were among the first dairy men in the county. Bush and Kent’s cows produced enough milk to make nearly 70 pounds of cheese (primarily American) per day. The pair sold large loads of what was considered the finest quality cheese to both Leavenworth and Lawrence, earning 10 cents per pound, wholesale.

At that time, three dairies were located around Burlingame and they gained a reputation for superior cheeses, winning state fair premiums for the best cheese for most of a decade. Merchants were willing to pay a premium for Osage County cheese because of its quality.

In the early days, cheese was cured at the homes of local farmers, but due to the benefits of the factory system and increase in demand for cheese from the Civil War, factories began to be established. In 1866, Superior (a now extinct town south of Burlingame) created a factory within its former hotel.

For their cheese factory in Burlingame, W.D. Canfield and Harvey Parker joined with Homer Rogers, of Lyndon, and purchased a former furniture factory with hopes to convert it for cheese production. A steam mill and boiler were attached for use in pumping and heating the water for the cheese process. The men invested less than $5,000 in the property, buildings, and machinery, and named their venture the Western Reserve Cheese Factory in honor of their place of nativity. By May 1873, they were ready for production, reportedly one of five small factories in the state. The Western Reserve Cheese factory projected that they could manufacture 1,000 pounds of 40-pound cheeses per day, contracting with local farmers for 400 cows.

Burlingame, while the center of Osage County at that time, was not the only area town that was considering the marketability of cheese. Carbondale began looking into a flour and cheese mill pairing. The booming town of Lyndon and Valley Brook Township also marginally passed $3,000 in bonds to build a steam mill and cheese factory within a half mile of the disputed county seat.

To secure a successful cheese factory, the towns needed to secure the promise of approximately 300 cows before a factory could be considered. The factory system touted the ability to give local farmers a home market for the end product, the resources to be able to ship the excess elsewhere, and provide a source of ready money from the profit of the sale. Farmers would supply milk; payment included cheese and a portion of whey, which they fed to calves and pigs. The average cow could produce two gallons of milk per day meaning that each cow could show a net profit of $40 per year.

No matter all the benefits from the cheese factory, controversy found a way to surround it. The milking of cows during the cheese season (spring to fall of the year) was a daily chore and the delivery of milk to the factory on the Sabbath did not sit well with some. Justifications for the process were made, however, claiming the hired men visiting the farms to retrieve milk gave the farmer’s wives a chance to rest on the Sabbath, and since the milk had to be delivered by 9 a.m., they had ample time to make it to church themselves.

The first cheese season in Burlingame was a success, and the factory was soon sending cheese to Lawrence, Topeka and Ottawa as its primary market. The factory received more than 700,000 pounds of milk, which produced nearly 65,000 pounds of cheese and 2,000 pounds of butter. Farmers saw the average earnings per cow at $22.80.

Encouraged by the response from the first season, the factory requested that the farmers furnish double the amount of milk in the next season, fulfilling the dreams of Parker, Canfield and Rogers. By the next year, Western Reserve Cheese was making eleven 40-pound cheeses per day; manufacturing cheese boxes to ship not only their own cheeses, but for other factories in the state; and was able to pay farmers 1/2 cent more per gallon of milk than any other factory in the state.

The Kansas Farmer, a Topeka publication, stated, “At the Burlingame cheese factory I found the most even, uniform lot of cheese I had seen. Not only were they very uniform as to size and shape, but they were of so nearly the same color and quality that the difference was not distinguishable.”

Western Reserve Cheese continued to grow and gained the interest of other farmers as suppliers, such as Miles S. Hoover. Mr. Hoover was an average example of a supplier, owning 28 cows. The milk he provided produced over 5,000 pounds of cheese, which sold at 11 cents per pound, and over 600 pounds of butter that sold for 12 cents per pound, making his earnings average about $24 per cow. Because of suppliers like Hoover, Burlingame eventually was putting out its largest amounts of cheese, totaling on average 23 cheeses per day and 74,000 pounds of cheese in 1876. The factory was also manufacturing pine and elm cheese boxes for other area factories.

As time passed, additional towns within the county also became involved in the cheese process. Melvern converted one of its buildings for a factory and Arvonia built a new two-story factory. The cheese industry thrived in the county due in part to mining lands that were unusable for farming but were prime grazing grounds, and it gave local farmers a way to earn additional income. The Burlingame factory alone paid local farmers more than $60,000 during its decade of existence.

Success for the Western Reserve Cheese Company was not to last, however. A depression of the cheese market occurred in the 1878 season, causing sales to drop drastically to an average price of six cents per pound. Canfield, who had become the sole owner, dug into his own resources to pay his patrons. Canfield eventually exhausted his funds. To repay what was owed, he called upon Finch Brothers to assist, ending with Finch Brothers purchasing the factory from him.

Finch Brothers were not interested in continuing the cheese factory themselves, and the building was converted into the O.K. Washing Machine factory in 1883. By this time, rotary machines were increasing in popularity, bringing a valuable business to the town.

Western Reserve Cheese label by Osage County News.

Discover more about W.D. Canfield’s life in Burlingame in this Hidden HistoryNo memorial for Civil War medic, Burlingame schoolchildren’s caretaker


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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