Photos courtesy of Monroe Historical Society
Long before Velveeta became a household name across the United States, it was invented by a Hudson Valleyite by the name of Emil Frey.
The Hudson Valley has been home to many creative geniuses, but there’s one prodigy who has escaped most people’s notice. His name is Emil Frey, and he invented Velveeta.
The Orange County town of Monroe was once home to several of the leading old-world cheesemakers in the land. One was a man named Julius Wettstein, a German-born cheese maker who opened the first cheese factory in Monroe, which produced renowned German, French, and Swiss varieties.
His Monroe Cheese Company was acquired in 1884 by Adolphe Tode and Ferdinand Wolfe, who, four years later, hired Frey. He was the son of a farmer and cheesemaker who was born in Switzerland in 1867 and moved to the U.S. 20 years later. Frey 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. Tode challenged his team to produce a popular European style of sheep’s milk cheese called Bismarck, because his imported product was often spoiled by the time it reached New York.
Frey tinkered for two years before he created something new. No, it wasn’t Velveeta—that was his second great invention.
It wasn’t Bismarck cheese, either. It was a soft, spreadable cheese that was so good, Tode told Frey to forget Bismarck and make more of it. The cheese was named Liederkranz, after a famous New York City singing society that included Theodore Roosevelt, Leopold Damrosch, and Jacob Ruppert, and quickly became one of the most popular cheeses in the country. On May 15, 1915, The Monroe Gazette 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 over a ton a day.
Surprisingly, however, Tode’s company was unsuccessful. A New York City wholesale grocer named Jacob Weisl bought it, and it was under Weisl’s leadership that Frey came up with his second breakthrough.
The company opened a new factory in Covington, Pennsylvania, where it made mostly Swiss cheese. During production, many of the cheese wheels broke or were misshapen, and there was a lot of extra whey, a cheese-making waste product. Weisl wanted to find a way to use it. The broken wheels and whey were shipped to Monroe, where Frey spent two years experimenting on his home stove. In 1918, he had his second eureka moment: By mixing the whey with the cheese, a smooth end-product with a velvety consistency was created. He named it Velveeta.
Weisl spun the brand off into the Velveeta Cheese Company, incorporated in 1923, and the companies’ sales extended to hotels and restaurants across the country and Europe. Three years later, however, the Monroe Cheese Company closed both its plants and moved to Ohio, where milk was more plentiful and less expensive. The Velveeta Company remained in Monroe until 1927, when it was sold to Kraft Foods.
Liederkranz continued to be popular, and Frey worked for Borden (who bought Monroe Cheese in 1929) in Ohio as the general manager until he retired in 1938. He died on January 11, 1951. Almost 40 years later in 1989, the Monroe Historical Society honored the cheese company at the site of the former factory on Mill Pond Parkway. Among the guests in attendance was Frey’s son, Robert, who donated a marker to commemorate his unsung father’s contributions to the cheese world.