The Neil Family
Master Cheese Makers of Upstate New York
by Nicole L. Neil
The Neil family is well known in Upstate New York for their
wonderful cheese products. Fathers, sons, and nephew were
all engaged in the craft. Their story begins in Gouverneur,
New York, when Chester A. Neil (1888-1959) married Jennie
Overacker on June 15, 1912. Chester Neil went to work with
his father-in-law Albert W. Overacker, who owned The Cream
of the Valley Cheese Factory in Gouverneur. Chester soon became
the manager. The factory burned down in May, 1914, but Chester
rebuilt it and continued for two years, when he sold it.
In 1921, he purchased the Belleville Cheese and Butter Factory,
in Halls Corners, near Edwards, New York, which he and his sons
Edwin (1916-1997) and Irwin (1920-1999) operated until he closed
the factory in 1954.
was of the opinion that :Cheese-makers are like baseball players:
they are born not made". Chester had more
than forty years in the cheese-making business and had strong
opinions abut how to do things right. He didn't think that many
cheese factories were worthy of the name. He used to say, "You can't hurry cheese, and you have to have a feel for it." Cheese-making is not for the lazy man, he would say;
it involves many steps. Water quality, too, plays an important
role in the cheese making operation. At the Belleville
Cheese and Butter Factory (the Neil factory), the water came
from a spring on a hill across the road from the building. A
limitless supply was piped by gravity from an aluminum springhouse
to the building.
At the Belleville Cheese and Butter Factory cheese was made
as follows: Once the milk was weighed, it was strained through
very fine steel mesh and piped into the vats. These containers,
stainless steel inside, held about 3500 pounds of milk apiece.
A lactic acid bacteria culture was added; without it, the cheese
would not develop. Then the rennet, made from extracts taken
from the stomach of newborn calves is added in the proportion
of about 3 ounces to 1000 pounds. The rennet was mixed into
the cold milk at the rate of about 18 ounces to 11 quarts before
being put into the vats. Very gradually, the heat was increased
in the milk mixture from about 86 degrees to 98 degrees.
During this stage the ingredients were mixed thoroughly with
The milk thickens in about thirty-five minutes. Then,
working swiftly, the cheese makers cut the mass horizontally
and vertically with curd knifes, forming cubes. The curd particles
are pushed to one end of the vat and become matted together.
This process, called cheddaring, is the procedure from which
the cheese gets its name.
With long, sharp knifes, the cheese-makers cut a trench through
the heavy curd by turning the center masses of the curd over
that on the sides, creating a long drainage trough for the whey
curd, now in large chunks, was repeatedly turned to allow more
whey to drain away. After standing for about an hour and a quarter,
the slabs were than fed into the curd mill above the vats, and
the shredded curd fell back into the vats. The shreds
were then worked over by a four-armed stainless steel agitator,
which moved on a track above the vat. This machinery
saved many hours of arduous hand labor once performed by the
cheese-maker with rakes and forks. The curd was tested
to determine its acid content, but Chester and his sons seemed
to know the exact time to act merely by the feel of the curd.
The curd was thoroughly agitated and drained for three or four
minutes and stirred again. Salting the curd came next, which
drew out more whey that must drain off. Once the last
of the whey was gone, the agitator once more turned the mixture.
Finally, the young cheese was than ready to be pressed by
hand into the metal cheese hoops. While in these forms, it remained
on a long table under pressure overnight. The next day
the hoops were removed from the press and the cheese carried
to the curing room.
In the curing room the cheese rounds were arranged on wooden
shelves and turned every night and morning for 60 days.
Cheese made from un-pasteurized milk must be kept for 60 days
before being sold to the consumer. By the end of that
period, the lactic acid had killed all harmful bacteria.
The ideal temperature for curing cheese is 60 degrees F., but
unless a plant is air conditioned, this temperature cannot be
maintained in summer. In the winter, on the other hand,
heat was let into the curing room to achieve the ideal temperature.
During the curing step the rind forms. On Friday and Saturdays,
the cheese made during the week was waxed.
While the curing process has been going on, two other procedures
have been underway. The whey draining from the vats has been
piped into an adjoining room and run through a cream separator.
A surprising amount of cream is released and is kept to be made
into butter. The skimmed whey is conveyed again by pipe
into a wooden vat located downhill from the factory. This
product was made available to area residents to feed to
During the flush season (usually spring and early summer),
the Neil factory produced about five tons of cheese a week.
As the milk supply lagged, production dropped to about 2500
pounds. A large amount of the factory's output was sent
abroad. Also, much of their cheese was sold to big companies
boxed at the Neil plant. The most popular were the 'picnic
twins', weighing 12 pounds each and packaged two in a box.
In addition there were the singles, called Daisies, weighing
21 pounds; the larger singles, weighing 40 pounds; and the cheddar
hoops, weighing 75 pounds.
Chester's two sons both continued in the cheese business
after he retired. Erwin "Ike" Neil worked 14 years with
his father at the Belleville Cheese and Butter Factory, and
another 14 years at the Sunnyside Milk Plant. Edwin Neil
worked not only with his father at the Belleville Factory but
in the mid-1950s began work with his cousin Clarence J. Neil
in Palymra, New York at the Palmyra Creamery.
Clarence J. Neil, the son of Robert and Minnie Neil was born
in Macomb, New York, in 1911. He graduated from Cornell
University in 1936 and married Mary Esther Engelsen that same
year. They lived in Palmyra, New York where Clarence
co-owned (with his cousin Richard Hyman) and operated the Palmyra
Creamery. Clarence owned 11 state licenses to test milk
and butter in multiple states as well as being a master cheese-maker.
The Palmyra Creamery made and sold butter and ice cream ---
as many as 15 flavors --- to a large part of Northern New York
Clarence sold his share of the creamery in 1962.
In 1954, when he was 10 years old, Clarence's son Larry began
helping his dad make butter and ice cream. He spent many
days after school and working weekends learning the craft from
his father. Although Larry did not become a master cheese-maker like his dad and uncles, he appreciated the fact that
he had the opportunity to learn about the trade.
All of Neil master cheese-makers have passed away but, they’re
memory will stay with us for many years to come.
The author married Larry Neil in 1966. She worked for
16 years as a medical billing supervisor and is now a Barden
Homes sales representative in Watertown, New York.
Webmaster's note: A hand-written caption on the first
photograph in this article states "Pop and Ryman Moore".
The following appeared in the Gouverneur newspaper on May
30, 1914 ...
Cheese Factory Loss $ 10,000
Cream of the Valley destroyed
by fire - Insurance about $ 7,000
About 300 boxes of cheese
destroyed-Owner to rebuild at once.
GOUVERNEUR- The Cream of theValley Cheese Factory, located
about 8 miles from this village, near Overacker Corners, was
totally destroyed by fire shortly after 1 PM Saturday, as was
also the house nearby, causing a loss of about $10,000 on which
there was an insurance on buildings and contents of about $7,000.
The factory was being operated by Chester Neil, Mr. Overacker's
son-in-law. While cleaning up after the cheese had been
put in the presses, flames were discovered in the boiler room.
Within a few minutes that end of the structure was a roaring
furnace, burning very quickly. The house nearby, which
was occupied by Mr. Neil, caught fire. A portion of the
furniture was saved. There were about 10 days made of
the cheese in the factory aggregating upwards of 300 boxes.
During the progress of the fire sparks ignited a building on
the Ross Babcock farm, nearby, but a bucket brigade soon extinguished
it. The factory was built over 25 years ago. It
is probable that the work of the building will be commenced
at once and be completed within 2 weeks at the latest .
The boiler can be utilized again, but otherwise new equipment
will be necessary.