A century ago, this small Allegany County town was considered "the Cheese Center of the World." In the 1880s, there were about 1,500 neighborhood cheese factories in New York State, and the national price for cheddar cheese was established each Wednesday by a group of men who met each week at Cuba's Hotel Kenney.
> Cheese Museum
The best way to learn about Cuba's cheese-making history is at the Cuba Cheese Museum, 22 Water St. (585-968-5654, www.cubacheesemuseum.org), open weekends May to October. This museum, established in 2004 by Nico van Zwanenberg and John Nease, gives visitors an overview of the early cheese and dairy industry in Western New York, with artifacts and exhibits illustrating the evolution of cheese and dairy production.
Like many other things, cheese production has changed greatly over the years. The goal of the museum is to preserve the history of cheese making, as well as the tools used in the process, for current and future generations.
One of the first displays you see upon stepping inside is a timeline of the industry's history. Beyond that is some unique vintage equipment, starting with an 1895 Mehring milking machine -- because the first step in cheese making is getting the milk.
In the early days, milk was transported from the farm to the factory by horse and wagon in milk cans; the museum has a display of vintage metal milk cans. "In the late 1800s, a cheese factory was built every seven miles," said John Nease, chairman of the board of the Cuba Cheese Museum. "The farmer would travel 3 1/2 miles to the factory and 3 1/2 miles back; that was a half-day's journey in those days." He added that, as the farmer traveled his route, he would stop by other farms to pick up their milk to go to the factory.
By the 1930s, trucks hauled the milk cans, and by the 1950s and '60s, refrigerated trucks and storage tanks eliminated the need for milk cans and carried milk for miles. And refrigerated milk could be stored, so it didn't have to be picked up daily.
Nease ushered me into a room that is devoted to the history of ice cream, buttermilk and butter making. The equipment on display would typically be used to make those products for home consumption, rather than commercial production.
I found one contraption particularly interesting. "That's a treadmill with a slosher attached," said Nease. "The farmer would put a goat or dog on the treadmill, and as the animal walked, the slosher, which was filled with milk, would move around and eventually you'd have butter."
He explained how people kept dairy products cold in the days before refrigeration. "People would put the product in a crock, and then stick the crock in a spring to keep it cool." He added, "Some people would even build their house over a spring so that they could have a room in their cellar with a spring in it."
For my children, the best part of the museum was the two movies on how cheese is made, using actual footage shot in New York State cheese factories. The first film, "Cheddar Cheese in New York State," is about 15 minutes long; the second, about Cuba's Empire Cheese Co., is about 12 minutes. Both give a good overview on cheese making, past and present.
Empire Cheese makes mozzarella and provolone in its Cuba plant. It has another plant in Skaneateles that makes cheddar cheese. New York State cheddar gets its unique flavor because raw milk is used in the production.
The Cuba Cheese Museum also has a library, with all sorts of dairy- and cheese-related books; many of these were donated to the museum by Cornell University.
> Cheese shop
After seeing all that cheese in the videos, we naturally had a taste for it. Luckily, the Cuba Cheese Shoppe (800-543-4938 www.cubacheese.com) is located just a few blocks away at 53 Genesee St. We made the mistake of visiting it when we were hungry, so we ended up buying a lot more than we planned!
The shop carries about 200 varieties of cheese, some made locally, along with candy, crackers, jams, jellies, mustards and lots of unique kitchen items. Our basket quickly filled up. They even sell a "traveler's pack," filled with cheese and pepperoni, for people like us who can't wait until we get home to have some cheese.
> Other sights
The four-block South Street Historic District, along Route 305 south of the cheese shop, has dozens of well-preserved Victorian-era homes that are listed on state and national registers of historic places. One unique structure is the Block Barn. This 50-by-347-foot fireproof cement building was constructed in 1909 by William Simpson to house his world-famous race horse McKinney. It is currently home to Empire City Farms.
The town is also home to two large antique co-ops. Cuba Antiques, 6 Water St. (585-968-0700), is a multidealer shop housed in a vintage brick building that features two floors of quality items. Just north of the downtown area, near Interstate 86, is Our Olde Barn, 5290 Maple Lane (585-968-2259), a former dairy barn that has been converted into a flea market and antique co-op, open weekends only. They have all sorts of items, including furniture, collectibles and antiques.
Recreational boaters and fishermen may want to check out the 500-acre Cuba Lake, about two miles north of town. When it was built in 1858 as part of a canal system, it was the largest man-made lake ever created.
Near the spillway end of Cuba Lake on the Oil Spring Indian Reservation is the Seneca Oil Spring. A historic marker indicates the place where oil was first discovered in the United States in 1627.
> Garlic festival
The seventh annual Cuba Garlic Festival, Sept. 17-18, will be held on the grounds of Empire City Farms (the Block Barn), 105 South St. (www.cubagarlicfestival.com). The event features garlic-themed foods, wine and cheese tasting, cheese-making demonstrations, craft vendors, tours, live music and the crowning of the garlic king and queen. Admission is $5.
The Cuba Cheese Museum will be hosting its annual fundraiser, a Beer and Cheese Festival, on Oct. 7. The event features beers and cheeses, along with German foods and homemade desserts.
Cuba is about a two-hour drive from Buffalo. Take Route 400 south. It becomes Route 16; continue south to Interstate 86 east. On I-86, take the Cuba exit and Route 305 into town.