Photo & Story by Dave Warner – Alice Laurenson (center in yellow) chats with two other Little Falls Cheese Festival volunteers in their booth on Saturday.
By any measure, the 4th annual Little Falls Cheese Festival was a huge success. The crowds were large, weather was good (OK, we could have had 72 degrees with clear blue skies, but it’s the middle of July, so hot and muggy is what we got) and it seemed like everything went off without a hitch.
The festival is now so large that it’s hard to remember that just a mere four years ago, it was simply an idea. Alice and Tom Laurenson know just how it got started, because it was their idea (sort of ).
According to Alice “a friend of ours came up to visit from the city – we had just moved here from the Hudson Valley and we had learned that Little Falls used to be the Cheesemaking Capital of the U.S., and who knew?”
Tom was interested in history, so he told the friend about it and he remarked “you should have a cheese festival. Vermont has a huge one and they get thousands of people.” Alice thought thousands? Maybe hundreds…
Alice said that from time to time she would mention it to people around Little Falls. At the time, “I had no intention of doing it as I had already started another non-profit and that was enough,” she stated.
Alice continued “I mentioned it to Jane Ritz in November of 2014 and two months later she called me and said – you know, I can’t get that idea out of my mind, I think we should do it!”
Alice and Tom were going to be gone at least three months out of the year already, so she told Jane they’d talk in January.
“The momentum was there, we just couldn’t NOT do it”, said Alice. Julie and Gayle from the Garlic Festival said – can’t you just feel the buzz?
In January, everyone decided that they would do it in July of 2015. Alice went home and asked her husband Tom to take care of all the ‘computer stuff’ that would be needed and he said fine. And so, they did it.
When we started, Alice said “We had no idea how many cheesemakers there were.” Sharon at Cooperstown Cheese and Lynn Weir of the Cooperstown Farmers Market talked to Alice and said “you should do it.”
“Everyone really encouraged us, and from that it just happened. We had thirteen cheese makers the first year and about 30 booths total,” remarked Alice. It was all New York because we modeled it after the Vermont cheese festival, which was the epitome of cheese festivals.
“I read about them – I modeled what I wanted to do here again for cheesemakers and then we added bread, honey and jams and things like that” she continued.
At the first one, they had about 2,500 people on West Main, but because it was a state highway, they couldn’t close the street. The next year, they had more vendors, so had to move east along main in order to accommodate everyone.
This year was the first year they’ve been able to extend it almost the entire length of main street to include all of the vendors and existing merchants that want to participate.
According to Alice “we’ve built a really fabulous festival committee – really committed wonderful talented people and most of them were with us from the beginning. We moved back this year as advisors and consultants and prepared to come to the meetings if necessary in September, but it was obvious we were not needed. There was so much energy and that’s how I had originally envisioned it because I thought I’d do it for three years.”
“It’s been a fabulous community effort. Little Falls has opened up its arms – we have a wonderful Garlic Festival, Canal Days, we have lots of events, Third Thursdays, and Little Falls is really getting known for festivals,” Alice said.
Alice went on “Our focus has always been to bring people from as far away as we can to Little Falls to buy quality New York State cheese.”
“We focus on New York – and that’s what makes us unique – its the unique selling point,” chirped in Tom. “They have to come here to get cheeses that they really can’t get anywhere else.”
One of the spin-offs of bringing so many people to the different festivals in Little Falls, is that many of them end up loving the area and come back to plant permanent roots here.
The Little Falls Cheese Festival is already twice the size of the one in Vermont. According to Tom, last years festival drew about 4,000 people. This year he expects about the same number, despite not being on the same weekend as the Boiler Maker in Utica, which helped draw traffic to the event. “This year, it’s the Cheese Festival on its own,” stated Tom.