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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
David Hamlin Burrell

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 48-54 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of David Hamlin Burrell

Portrait: David Hamlin Burrell

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Herkimer county lost one of its foremost citizens in the death of David Hamlin Burrell, which occurred at his home in Little Falls, on January 13, 1919. Mr. Burrell's long life was successful in the best sense of the word. Artisan, manufacturer, capitalist, philanthropist, reformer, scholar and Christian gentleman, he was for a generation one of the dominant factors in the varied energies which contributed to the upbuilding of his community. He was public-spirited in a large way and in the affairs of his city and county he exerted a strong and useful influence. Though interested in many and varied enterprises, it was to the dairy industry that he was most devoted and of it he made a splendid success. A native of Herkimer county, long a leader in the production of dairy products, he was interested in its welfare and the development of the activity for which it is most famous. Wherever dairy products are made or sold his name was familiar and it stood for progress and improvement as well as for commercial integrity.

David Hamlin Burrell came from a family that was largely instrumental in making Herkimer county cheese famous the world over, and Little Falls for many years the greatest cheese market in the world. His forebears on both sides of the family were old New England residents, tracing their ancestry back to England and France. Harry Burrell, his father, was born in Sheffield, Massachusetts, in 1797, and shortly thereafter Jonathan Burrell, grandfather of D. H. Burrell, left his native state and came to Herkimer county, where he settled at Burrell's Corners in the town of Salisbury, six miles north of Little Falls. The Burrells came to Herkimer county in 1801 and soon after reaching their new home embarked in the dairy industry. Soon the manufacture of cheese became the chief industry. The sons, as they grew up, joined the father in this enterprise and as early as 1820 Harry Burrell was associated with his father, Jonathan Burrell, not only in the manufacture of butter and cheese, but also in marketing the same for the farmers in the neighborhood. A few years later Harry Burrell was commissioned by the farmers of that section to receive their entire season's make of cheese sent to New York in the fall of the year. This cheese had to be hauled to Albany or Troy, there placed on barges and taken to New York, where Mr. Burrell had it stored. He remained in the city during the winter months, selling his products in New York and in the coast cities to the north and south. In the spring he returned to the country with the proceeds and distributed the money among the farmers, deducting a fair commission for his services. Thus was started a business that was continued for fifty years and grew in importance until frequently the firm of Harry Burrell & Company would have as many as sixty or seventy thousand boxes of cheese stored in New York in the autumn to sell during the following winter. It is interesting to note in this connection that Harry Burrell was the first merchant to ship American cheese to England.

It will be readily seen from the foregoing that David H. Burrell almost literally grew up in the dairy business. Born on the family homestead, in the town of Salisbury, on the 17th of March, 1841, he was the son of Harry Burrell and his wife, Sarah Montague (Hamlin) Burrell. He spent his early life at Burrell's Corners, but when he was twelve years old the family moved to Little Falls and he was able to enter the Little Falls Academy as a student. The year that he was sixteen years old he spent in a small private boys' school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, maintained by Professors Reid and Hoffman. The latter was a German mathematician, with thoroughgoing ideas of mental discipline which he carried out with such vigor that Mr. Burrell remembered his lessons vividly throughout his long and crowded life. At the end of this year at Stockbridge the future manufacturer's formal education came to a close. While in comparison with the college and technically trained young men of today, this preparation for life seems limited, Mr. Burrell never felt the hampers of a lack of education, for he had within himself the capacity for acquiring and assimilating knowledge, which he directed intelligently to the furthering of his own ends. In after years his intellectual achievements received a fitting recognition in scholastic halls themselves, when Hamilton College conferred upon him the honorary degree of Master of Arts.

When he was but a lad of fourteen David H. Burrell began to help his father in his work of contracting with the neighboring dairies for cheese. By the time he was twenty-two he had become so well acquainted with the intricacies of the business that he personally purchased thirty-three thousand boxes of cheese during October and November, which were shipped to the New York city market. During the winter, which he spent in the city, he sold the lot at an average profit of two dollars a box, netting his firm sixty-six thousand dollars. It is not irrelevant to note in this connection that his own salary for a year of hard work was one thousand dollars.

Five years later, in 1868, occurred a relatively unimportant event that was to have far-reaching influence on Mr. Burrell's career. On a certain Wednesday an incoming steamer brought word of the failure of a London firm to whom the Burrells had shipped goods, threatening a heavy loss. Acting with the same promptness and farsighted decision that characterized all of his later work, D. H. Burrell took passage on the City of Paris, and the following Saturday passed Sandy Hook on his way to London — a rather daring procedure for a comparatively inexperienced young man of twenty-seven. He succeeded in his mission to the extent of collecting practically the whole amount due his firm. The greater result of this journey, however, was the knowledge of the dairy industry that he gained during an extended stay in England and France. His attention was called to the superior quality of the English Cheddar cheese and after gathering all the information he could he set sail for America with the new purpose of inaugurating a movement that would improve the quality of butter and cheese in central New York. Immediately after his arrival in New York he made arrangements to dispose of his business there and returned to Herkimer county to carry out his plans. That he succeeded is abundantly shown by the fact that his name is known wherever advanced methods of butter and cheese making are in vogue. Mr. Burrell's first move after returning to Little Falls in 1868 was to form a partnership with the late Rodney S. Whitman, who was then a partner of the late George Ashley, carrying on the hardware business in the store where Burney Brothers are now engaged in the same line of business. Under the firm name of Whitman & Burrell they purchased the Ashley business, which they carried on. This may seem to the casual observer a round-about approach to the dairy business, but Mr. Burrell had thought his way carefully ahead before he made any steps, and events soon justified the wisdom of his course. The hardware store was one liberally patronized by the farmers of the surrounding community and in a way a sort of town meeting place, where they gathered to exchange bits of news and discuss agricultural affairs. It was an ideal place for Mr. Burrell to become acquainted with the dairymen and get them to try the new methods that he believed would be of great benefit to the dairy industry in this section. As an opening wedge he made a great point of carrying better dairying supplies than were on the market generally and introducing all the improvements. As the patrons of the store began to be aware of the value of these innovations the volume of trade increased steadily and the hardware, implement and dairy supply business under the new firm was very prosperous. In 1880 Walter W. Whitman was admitted to the partnership and the old Presbyterian church building at the corner of Ann and Albany streets was purchased and remodeled into the fine building that now forms part of the group of office and factory buildings of D. H. Burrell & Company. A year later Rodney S. Whitman sold his interest to his partners and retired from the business. On January 1, 1882, the name was changed to Burrell & Whitman. Another change took place in 1885, when Walter W. Whitman sold his interest to Mr. Burrell and Edward J. Burrell, brother of David H., became a member of the firm. The name was changed to D. H. Burrell & Company and thus remains. The partnership continued until the death of D. H. Burrell in 1919, when the company was incorporated, Edward J. Burrell becoming the president and the two sons of D. H. Burrell — Loomis Burrell and David H. Burrell, Jr., the vice president and secretary-treasurer, respectively.

In the course of time the hardware business, under Mr. Burrell's guidance, evolved into a great organization for the manufacture and distribution of dairy apparatus and supplies. For years the name of Burrell has stood for the best in all that pertains to these commodities. From time to time the office and factory buildings have been enlarged until they form one of the finest groups of the kind in Little Falls. Not all of the manufacturing has been done in this city, however. Branch factories are operated in Rome, New York, and Brockville, Ontario, and for many years a branch was maintained at Poughkeepsie, New York; and so long as there was a good local lumber supply available, mills for the manufacture of cheesebox hoops and materials were operated at Wyandotte, Trenton and Detroit, Michigan, but when it became necessary to import the lumber these properties were sold. A large number of improvements on old methods of handling and manufacturing milk and entirely new processes were perfected and introduced by Mr. Burrell, personally or under his immediate direction. Among those which have been especially helpful are the seamless bandage for cheese brought out by the Burrell company in 1876 and now universally used by cheese makers; silos for the preservation of ensilage, which were first introduced practically into the United States by Mr. Burrell, who tried them out on one of his own farms near Little Falls. In 1881 Mr. Burrell introduced commercially in America the first centrifugal cream separator and obtained control of the foundation patents covering the continuous separation of cream from milk by centrifugal force. This industry has been followed through successive stages to the present Burrell-Simplex Link-Blade Separator. D. H. Burrell & Company have also been largely instrumental in the development of milk pasteurizing systems and are large manufacturers of dairy and creamery, as well as cheese factory equipment. It was in 1860, the year that D. H. Burrell went into business with his father, that he first became interested in a milking machine, and a patented device was tried out at the Burrell farm at Little Falls. That was sixty-four years ago; and although the Burrell (B-L-K) Milker was not made and sold until 1905, it is today the oldest power-operated milker that has been continuously on the American market. Churns, butter workers, milk testers, pasteurizers and coolers, gang presses and self-bandaging hoops, milking machines and a number of other pieces of machinery have been invented or perfected by the Burrell firm, and in it all D. H. Burrell was the organizer, directing head and presiding genius. In the early years of his work he did not hesitate to take hold personally of any kind of work that presented itself, and he experimented with and perfected the different pieces of machinery. Such was his enthusiasm for his work and his vision of its importance, that he seized every opportunity, no matter how humble, to carry his gospel to the farmers and dairymen of central New York. In later years as his business assumed large proportions he was obliged to give up such work and devote all of his time to the direction of the different departments of his great establishment. An interesting side line into which he was drawn was the study of patent law, on which he became an authority. The nature of his business made the protection of his inventions by patents most important, and with characteristic thoroughness Mr. Burrell delved deep into this complicated question himself, instead of leaving the matter entirely in the hands of patent attorneys.

It is indicative of his sincere interest in every phase of the dairy industry that Mr. Burrell was treasurer of the first dairymen's board of trade that was ever organized in this country, and needless to say he had a hand in its formation. In 1871 a public meeting of the leading dairymen of the state was held in Little Falls and organized under the name of the New York State Dairymen's Association and Board of Trade. Soon after this organization took place the city of Little Falls contributed several hundred dollars to the enterprise and fitted up rooms for the association in the Cronkite block. As a direct result of this movement similar associations were organized in other dairy centers of the United States and Canada.

In about the year 1880 Mr. Burrell and his brother imported and stocked their farms with a number of pure-bred Holstein cattle and were largely instrumental in improving the dairy herds of this section. Intense as was D. H. Burrell's interest in the dairy enterprises of this country, for in time his activities assumed a nationwide scope, it never absorbed all of his time and energies. He had many other business connections of an important nature in various parts of the country, some of which brought him into pleasant relations with men of national repute and influence. In Herkimer county perhaps his most important relation, aside from his manufacturing interests, was that with the National Herkimer County Bank, the predecessor of the Herkimer County Trust Company, the oldest and largest financial institution in the county. From 1901 to 1913 he served as president of the bank, a period in the bank's history that was marked by steady growth and great prosperity. In fact, so successful was his administration that his resignation was accepted by the directors only after much protest, but Mr. Burrell felt that the time had come when he should pass some of the burdens on to other shoulders.

A very admirable trait of this manufacturer and capitalist was his sincere loyalty to his home city. In spite of his wealth and influential position in the larger industrial and financial centers, he was never tempted to make his home in a more fashionable or pretentious place, as do many men who have risen to high places. His sense of stewardship of this world's goods was never better expressed than in his efforts to make Little Falls a better place in which to live and work. And he began at the bottom. When his business began to assume the aspect of a manufacturing establishment, a policy of good wages to good workmen was inaugurated, with the result that many skilled workmen have been attracted to this city, where they have found pleasant living conditions for their families and have in their turn contributed to the growth and prosperity of the community. In 1890 he built a beautiful home on his hillside estate, known as Overlook, and laid out and improved the grounds, which were intended quite as much as a beauty spot for the city as a dwelling place for himself and his family. The new Burrell building, at the corner of Main and Ann streets, which now houses the Herkimer County Trust Company, is another illustration of his interest in civic improvement. No pains or expense were spared in designing and erecting this handsome modern office building, even though the additional expense incurred might mean a smaller return on the investment.

The extent and influence of Mr. Burrell's private charities will probably never be known. It is said that of the first thousand dollars he ever made he gave away one-half and that this is typical of his generosity in later years. Money in itself had scant value for him; he ever regarded it as a means of doing good and bringing pleasure to others. Some years before his death Mr. Burrell thoroughly refinished and decorated the Presbyterian church at his own expense and then erected and equipped the magnificent building of the Young Men's Christian Association in Little Falls. The latter undertaking was the outgrowth of years of thought and planning on his part to find some means of counteracting the contaminating influences that pervade most places of resort for young people, for his heart was ever with the young and nothing seemed to give him greater satisfaction than to help some young man struggling to get a start in life. He was generally credited with having helped more young people start in business than any other man in the Mohawk valley, and his sympathy and willingness to serve brought large numbers of young people to his office for advice. Another of his large gifts was that of sixty thousand dollars to the city of Little Falls, which made possible the beautiful city hall the community now boasts.

In 1863 Mr. Burrell united with the First Presbyterian church of Little Falls. On the 19th of October, 1869, he was elected ruling elder of the church, an office that he held and filled with great devotion and acceptability to the day of his death. For some time prior to his demise he had been the senior elder in the congregation. As a Christian gentleman he stood out as a faithful and consistent advocate of those things that make for right living and a due recognition of man's duty and obligations to his Maker. While he was a Presbyterian in belief and affiliation he was not a sectarian, but rather a Christian. He recognized that no one denomination, sect or creed embraced all that is comprehended by true Christianity, and encouraged every sincere effort to win men to an acceptance of the leadership of the religion's great Founder. By personal effort, or by the contribution of money, he was always ready to help every church and every effort that honestly sought to advance the cause he loved so dearly and devotedly.

David H. Burrell cast his first vote for Abraham Lincoln when the great president was running for his second term of office, and always continued to support the republican party as a rule, but especially in local politics he did not hesitate to vote for candidates of other parties when it seemed to him that they were better fitted for the offices in question. He was always intolerant of corruption in public life, no matter where it existed, and in 1911, when the republican county convention was unfortunately dominated by unfair methods, he led the movement and furnished the money to take the matter to the courts, where the proceedings were set aside and a new convention ordered to be held. Much as he was interested in all things that were related to public life and civic development, Mr. Burrell could never be persuaded to become a candidate for office himself. He felt that his sphere of greatest usefulness was elsewhere, and no one familiar with his life history can question that he rendered more important services to his city, county and state than many an incumbent of high and honorable office. However, he did consent to serve on the first board of water commissioners for Little Falls, which was organized in 1886 and was occupied with building the system of waterworks now in use. These commissioners planned with a wise foresight that enabled them to install a system that is still adequate — nearly forty years later.

Shortly before he died Mr. Burrell and his wife celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding, which occurred in Little Falls, on the 30th of December, 1868. Mrs. Burrell, who was born in Little Falls, on the 11th of February, 1843, remained a lifelong resident of her native town, where she passed away on the 30th of April, 1924, when eighty-one years of age. Her father, Judge Arphaxed Loomis, was a prominent jurist of Herkimer county and a writer on legal subjects. David H. and Louisa (Loomis) Burrell were the parents of five children, of whom three are living: Loomis, David H., Jr., and Elizabeth, all of Little Falls.

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