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A slice of Americana: Cuba Cheese Museum

What do Monroe, WI, Plymouth, VT, and Cuba, NY, have in common? Each burg is home to a museum devoted to cheese and cheesemaking, the only three in the United States.

“The Cuba Cheese Museum is important to people interested in the dairy business and regional history,” says Michele Conklin, the third generation Conklin associated with cheese in this charming Allegany County village. “We have visitors come from all over the world.”

There’s a lot of history here. New York State was the epicenter for cheesemaking in America during the 1800s and early 1900s. With plenty of rolling hills and farmland, the dairy industry formed the basis of the Allegany County economy. In short order, family cheese companies were scattered throughout the region, and the sharp and smooth cheeses produced here became a commodity.

For more than a century, in fact, the worldwide price for cheddar cheese was set every week in Cuba at the Kinney Hotel, which stood at the corner of W. Main and Orchard Streets.

Cheese from this region — particularly cheddar — has a unique flavor, due to the soil and water near the Great Lakes, which flavor the grass that the cows ingest. The result is distinctive sharpness that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

The Museum, which details much of this history, is housed in the Palmer-Keller Opera House, a historic Italianate structure on West Main Street originally built in 1867.

“The opera house fell into disrepair and was all but forgotten,” says Conklin. When the roof collapsed under snow and ice in 2001, the Cuba Friends of Architecture (CFA) raised money to rebuild, creating a multi-purpose community enrichment center. By 2009, the Cuba Cheese Museum was struggling to pay the rent in its former location, and was invited to relocate to the Opera House alongside a coffee shop, gift shop and fudge shop. This unique tenant mix inside a historic structure created a critical mass thanks to a “million dollar restoration, which was the catalyst for significant economic revitalization for downtown Cuba,” says Michael Doyle, head of the CFA.

The move was positive for the museum, too. There are more visitors now who can enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour with plenty of memorabilia that celebrates the history of cheesemaking. When the Opera House is open for evening and weekend events or is rented for weddings and special occasions, guests enter through the museum. Eye-popping artifacts like a huge copper vat from Switzerland, wooden cheese wheels, milk crates, and other tools of the trade tell the history of the dairy industry and cheesemaking, and how it evolved. There’s the blackboard where the “Ruleing Price” was scrawled every week, a vintage cheese wagon and hand-painted wooden advertising signs.

The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. with expanded hours during the summer months. There’s no website, but a Facebook page is active and inviting.

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