To truly appreciate the history of Black River Cheese Company Ltd, one must first know a little about the rich maritime and agricultural background of scenic Prince Edward County, where the company calls "home".
Although First Nations, French and British trappers had wandered through the area for years, it was not until the United Empire Loyalists (UELs) settled in the region, around 1786, that farming communities started appearing throughout The County. The Loyalists were British colonists who had remained faithful to Britain during the American Revolution; however, by end of the war, no longer able to cope with the constant persecution by those who viewed them as traitors, they fled north to what was eventually to become Canada. Bringing only what they could carry, many of them came to settle in Prince Edward County where they cleared the land, built log homes and established agricultural communities. Marysburgh, named after the daughter of King George III, the ruling British monarch at the time, was one of these small rural communities where farming was the only sustainable industry. More than a century later, this was to become home to Black River Cheese Company Ltd.
BARLEY DAYS The early years in their new homeland were a constant struggle for the Loyalists. It was actually not until 1850 that these new settlers experienced a tremendous period of prosperity known as the "Barley Days". During this time, the UELs grew malting barley and shipped it, in locally made schooners, to American breweries across Lake Ontario where the hops were sold at premium prices for their superior quality. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 50 years when it all came to an abrupt end after the Americans created a free trade barrier called the McKinley Tariff in 1900.
THE DAIRY INDUSTRY
With the demise of the local barley industry, area farmers had to look for other commodities to produce and new markets to sell their products. Fortunately, there was a growing demand for cheddar cheese in Great Britain. Within a short period of time, the County's existing dairy industry took to establishing cheese factories to meet this emerging market. Supplying cheese to Britain, the County's dairy industry experienced rapid growth with a demand for milk from the 26 newly established cheese factories one of which was Black River Cheese Company Ltd. With the added benefit of having access to local shipping ports, the County's local cheese factories were able to easily ship their 90 pound rounds of cheeses to Montreal for overseas export.
THE EARLY YEARS OF BLACK RIVER CHEESE COMPANY
Black River Cheese Company Ltd.'s actual beginnings can be attributed to the success of one local entrepreneur and cheese maker, Mr. Hyke, who took the initiative to open a small scale cheese factory out of the red barn located at Black Creek Bridge (now known as the Black River Bridge) with the help of private investor, Philip Empey, back in 1870.
Wanting to continue producing fine handcrafted cheese on a larger scale using milk supplied by local farmers, a group of South Marysburgh dairymen, led by William York, decided to build a larger facility across the road from Mr. Hyke's red barn small cheese house and open it under the name "Black River Cheese Company Ltd.". In 1901, the old red barn closed it doors for the last time and the new production facility opened across the road, on land purchased from the Jarvis family, and commenced production in June of that year.
The company was totally owned by this group of local dairy farmers who had the foresight to see the advantage of working together for their mutual benefit. Ninety shares of $20 each were sold and sales of the shares were quite brisk as it was a new investment opportunity for the community. The cost of building a home for the cheese maker, the factory and the purchase of the equipment required to produce the cheese came to a grand total of $1800, a sizeable amount in those days.
From the first, five directors were chosen from amongst the shareholders with William York as chairman. A secretary treasurer was hired and the company's constitution written. In the early years, the company appointed a cheese sales person who would attend a local cheese auction in the town of Picton, the County's commercial centre, where Black River cheese along with other area factories' cheese were tendered for auction. Cheese buyers would assemble at the auction where the company sales person would mingle and lobby for sales. The Board of Directors empowered the company sales person to bid at the auction to ensure our cheese would sell at an optimum price. Eventually, he became not only Black River Cheese Company Ltd.'s broker, but also acted on behalf of other factories as his expertise improved. When the factory prospered, so did the local farmers. In fact, by the 1940s, the local auction was moved to Belleville since there were more than 100 cheese houses by that time in the Bay of Quinte region. At the Belleville cheese auction, a Dutch clock method (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vc-hh0WT294) was used to sell the cheese.
The factory hired several neighbours who would agree to pick up and deliver the milk to the factory by horse and wagon in galvanized milk cans. Since no form of refrigeration existed, the perishable milk was delivered 7 days a week, and kept cool in wells during the summer. Most of the farms that supplied milk to the factory had to be within a 3-mile radius due to the poor road conditions and perishability of the milk; therefore, it was milk from Black Creek, Milford, South Bay and Royal Street that was originally used to make Black River Cheese. It was an early morning job to get the cows to the barn, milk them by hand, and have the milk ready for transport in the cans by 7 am to be picked up for delivery to the factory, but it was thanks to the local farmers' dedication that Black River Cheese Company Ltd. was able to survive.
The factory was seasonally operated, usually opening in pasture season from April until the end of October. In the early years, the secretary-treasurer controlled all of the funds until the end of the season. After the bills were paid, the farmers would share in the remaining funds. Cheese, butter and cheesecloth for filtering the milk were supplied to the milk producers as an advance payment.