American ingenuity is a remarkable thing. Among our greatest gifts to the world are products that — how shall we put this — resemble real things but are themselves wholly unreal. Twinkies come immediately to mind. So does reality TV, an oxymoron taken to the second power. I’m old enough to remember Beatlemania, a 1970s Broadway show whose marketing slogan was “Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation!” Yet one of the most enduring fake-real products ever to infect the land was invented right here, in the Orange County town of Monroe. I am referring, of course, to Velveeta.
To paraphrase Monty Python, this “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product,” as it must be described by FDA fiat, is certainly uncontaminated by cheese. But it wasn’t always thus. Indeed, it was invented by a cheese-making prodigy; and Monroe was once home to some of the leading cheese makers in the land. That line begins, in 1873, with a man named Julius Wettstein, a cheese maker who immigrated to the United States from Germany. According to Monroe Town Historian James A. Nelson, Wettstein opened Monroe’s first cheese factory, which produced “a fine line of German, French, and Swiss type cheeses,” Nelson writes in a history of the town’s cheese industry. “Wettstein was amply rewarded for the long hours expended in building his company. He acquired a solid business reputation and his cheeses commanded a high market price.”
Owing to his wife’s poor health and return to Germany, Wettstein sold his Monroe cheese operation in 1878 to Messrs. Gross & Company for $16,000. For that sum, the new owners — principal Lena Gross and cheese makers Leonard R. Gross, John Hoff, and August Gross — received a two-story frame house, a two-story factory, a barn, two carriages, one truck, one horse, equipment, and a cheese formula known as fromage de Brie. In 1884, they in turn sold the business, including trademarks for fromage de Brie and two other styles, Neuchatel and d’Isigny, to Adolphe Tode and Ferdinand Wolfe for $25,000.
And four years later, these new owners of the Monroe Cheese Company hired a cheese genius named Emil Frey.
Emil Frey, creator of Velveeta and Liederkranz
Emil Frey, the son of a farmer and cheese maker, was born in Switzerland in 1867. He and his father came to America, and by 1887 Emil was employed by the Neuesswanders Cheese Factory at Slaterytown, in the Orange County town of Blooming Grove, before moving on to the Monroe Cheese Company.
Monroe Cheese Company Co-Owner Adolphe Tode also owned the Manhattan Delicatessen in New York, and in 1889 he challenged his cheese makers to produce a popular style called Bismarck, because his imported product often spoiled on its way from Europe. “Frey experimented for two years before he stumbled on a new product,” Nelson writes. No, this was not Velveeta; that was his second great invention. This wasn’t Bismarck cheese, either. It was a soft-ripening, spreadable cheese that was so good, Tode told Frey to forget Bismarck and send more of this new creation. The cheese was given the name Liederkranz, after a famous New York City Singing Society that included Theodore Roosevelt, Conductor Leopold Damrosch, and onetime Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. It soon became one of the most popular cheeses in the land. “It became very famous and was served in the best restaurants and hotels from New York to San Francisco,” says Nelson. He writes that the Monroe Gazette of May 15, 1915 reported that over 1,000 boxes of Liederkranz, weighing about two and a half tons, were shipped from the factory in a two-day period, and that the factory averaged more than a ton per day.
The cheese was successful, but Tode wasn’t. Financial problems put his company and property into foreclosure, and it was bought by a New York City wholesale grocer named Jacob Weisl, whose family ran the company for the next 38 years. It was under Weisl’s leadership that Frey came up with his second cheesy breakthrough.
A 1916 photo of the Monroe Cheese Company factory; below, the original Velveeta cheese box
The company opened a second factory in Covington, Pennsylvania, where it made mostly Swiss cheese. But many of the cheese wheels broke or were misshapen. “They didn’t like to waste anything,” Nelson says, so the broken bits were shipped back to Monroe, where Frey spent the next two years tinkering with them on his home stove. In 1918, he had his second big break. He discovered that mixing the broken wheels with other cheese byproducts created a smooth end-product with a velvety consistency. He named it Velveeta.
This brand spun off into the independent Velveeta Cheese Company, incorporated on Feb. 14, 1923, and both companies were successful — for a while. In the mid-1920s, under the strong hand of General Manager Max O. Schaefer, Monroe Cheese’s sales extended to “practically every hotel and restaurant in America and some European countries,” Nelson writes. Schaefer also helped establish the Monroe racetrack and the Monroe Driving Park Association. Because of his sudden death in an automobile accident in 1925, neither the racetrack nor the cheese company survived after 1927.
In January 1926, the Monroe Cheese Company closed both its Monroe and Covington plants and moved to Ohio, where milk was more plentiful and less expensive. The Velveeta company remained until the next year, when it was sold to Kraft Foods.
And that was the end of industrial cheese making in Monroe.
One last slice
Nelson says that after Velveeta left, the Monroe plant was bought by Ray and Joseph George to make and bottle natural fruit beverages. They then leased the building to men who had other ideas — ones that did not comply with Prohibition laws. “In July 1932 the New York State Police raided the building and found a still, which produced another type of natural beverage which was much more popular than the former,” Nelson writes.
The Monroe Cheese Company was bought out by Borden in 1929. Liederkranz continued to be popular for several more decades until production stopped 25 years ago (though in 2010, a Wisconsin company revived it). Emil Frey worked for Borden as the general manager until he retired in 1938. He died in 1951.
In 1989, the Monroe Historical Society payed homage to the Monroe Cheese Company at the site of the former factory. Among the distinguished guests in attendance was Emil Frey’s son, Robert, who unveiled a marker to commemorate his father’s contributions to the world of cheese. And to Velveeta, which, as Nelson says, “we really can’t call cheese, can we?”