Food Preservation in the Little Town that Could

Food Preservation in the Little Town that Could

When I tell people I live in New York, an automatic assumption seems to be that I live in New York City. Thoughts of large buildings and the hustle and bustle of city life seem to step into the minds of those who ask. I often have to explain that I’m NORTH of New York City, but not in it. My children watch horses while they wait for the school bus, and, on many occasion, we’ve stepped out into our yard to find we were entertaining guests that consisted of  goats and peacocks that have escaped neighbors’ yards.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was a guilty party to making assumptions about New York. I lived most of my life in Virginia Beach, yet I’ve been all over the country. My perception of New York and those that inhabited the state were so far off from reality, that I was stunned when I moved here to see the dynamics of the state. The city life is part of the daily lives in my town here, but not in the way most people picture.

The fact of the matter is that I live in a commuting town TO New York City. Many people work in the city, but choose to live their lives here. They endure commutes that may last over an hour to and from the city just to raise their children here. My town is called the Town of Southeast which has a village called Brewster. The town of Southeast is one of the last train stops to Grand Central station on the Metro North train. A train ride from my town can take up to an hour and a half to Manhattan. People who work in the outskirts of the city often live here because they like the country-like atmosphere and the excellent school system. A mortgage payment here can go a lot further than a New York City apartment, plus the availability of restaurants, shopping, and convenience of items needed for every day living are right at our fingertips.

There is a mixture of people living in this town that range from descendants of Revolutionary War Patriots and beyond that were born here and transplants that came from other locations. It’s a town with an air of history, New England style architecture, stone walls, and large bodies of water for fishing and canoeing. We are the home of reservoirs and watersheds that are part of the water supply for New York City.

But, my town wasn’t always a way for families to live in a country setting while working in the city.  This unassuming town boasts a history in the preservation of food. Across the nation, you can witness the results of the hard work of a person who lived in my town…his ingenuity and drive changed food preservation. Rewind back to the 1800’s when the commute made from my town to New York City involved milk being transported from the large amount of dairy farmers located here prior to the town being flooded out by the creation of the Croton River Reservoir that services New York City with our wonderful tasting water. These dairy farmers faced a major problem because milk was transported in contaminated wood barrels. Thankfully, Gail Borden, who was an inventor among other various occupations, patented a way to condense milk to remedy the problem.

Gail Borden


Gail Borden

Gail Borden's Patent
Gail Borden’s patented method for condensing milk.


Gail Borden was a true inventor and business man at heart. His desire to create food preservation led him to be a success after having lost almost all of his money in a condensed beef broth and flour mixture that he marketed as a beef biscuit pemmican. He truly believed in his product, but invested too much money into it. When he developed his invention for condensed milk, his finances were strapped, and he couldn’t put his plan into action. As luck (or destiny) would have it, Gail met Jeremiah Milbank on a train ride. Mr. Milbank financed the project and became a 50/50 partner.  As a result, Mr. Borden opened his first factory in Wassaic, New York in 1861.  His second factory was established in 1864 in Brewster.

bordens (2)

 The significance of Gail Borden’s invention reached beyond the scope of milk delivery to New York City. While remembering that it’s been over 150 years since the Civil War, it’s important to recognize the contribution that food preservation made to the success of the Union army. The Union army gained strength by using the condensed milk for nourishment, and the production of condensed milk was fueled by the Civil War. It was also used in hospitals to assist with the recovery of patients. If you speak with a local, you may hear rumors that have existed since the Civil War that state Gail Borden’s invention was a factor with the success of the Union.

The Civil War veterans reported back to their families about condensed milk, and the business of condensed milk took off. More condensed milk factories had to be built in order to meet with the demand.

Gail Borden didn’t stop with the preservation of milk. He attempted to preserve other food items.  Another success took place in 1862 when he patented a way to condense fruit juices. However, the condensed milk was the number one selling item with Borden’s making Mr. Milbank’s investment of $100,000 turn into an estimate of eight million by the time he passed away in 1884.

Borden Condensed Milk 1898

1898 advertisement of Borden’s Condensed Milk and Evaporated Cream.  The Borden’s milk products were renamed to Eagle Brand

Gail Borden’s motto was, “I tried and failed, I tried again and again and succeeded.”  It’s a motto so many of us should apply to our lives.  Don’t ever accept a failure as a life failure.  Don’t ever give up on dreaming and ideas.  Don’t ever quit creating.

Gail Borden may have never lived to see that condensed milk would be a staple still carried in today’s markets, but he will forever be remembered by those of us who appreciate his influence in our town and for our country.  Borden’s condensed milk is now known as Eagle Brand.  Unfortunately, the creation of the reservoir system in my town caused some dairy farmers to relocate, and the Brewster Borden’s factory shut down in the 1920’s.  In 1935, a mysterious fire took place that burned down the building.  However, the legacy of Mr. Borden and the life lesson he was able to teach about persistence lives on forever.  In honor of my town and Gail Borden, I created a lemon cake using sweetened condensed milk.  The man who was a dreamer and made a dream become a reality because he believed in what he did and went after what he believed is not only a legacy here, but an inspiration.

If you don’t have condensed milk on hand, never fear!  You won’t have to open a factory or attempt the equipment that Gail Borden created, but what you CAN do is hop over to for condensed milk recipes to replace a store bought can.  Here are a few to get started, but you can also do a search to get more:


Southeast Lemon Cake

½ cup of butter, softened

14 oz sweetened condensed milk

2 eggs

6 oz Lemon, non-fat Greek Yogurt (I recommend Chobani)

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups flour

1 cup powdered sugar

2 TBSP lemon juice


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, mix together butter and sweetened condensed milk until smooth.

Add two eggs and mix until blended.

Add yogurt and continue to mix until well blended.

Add baking powder, baking soda, and vanilla, and gradually add in flour while the mixer is on at a low speed.

Once flour is completely added, raise mixer speed a little higher until the flour is well blended and no lumps are visible (approximately two minutes).

Grease and flour a tube pan or use a cooking spray with flour.

Pour mixture into pan and level down with a spatula.

Bake at 350 for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until cake tests done.

Sit pan on cooling rack for ten minutes.

Turn out onto cooling rack and allow to cool slightly.

Place cake onto cake serving platter while still warm.

In a small bowl, use a fork to mix powdered sugar with lemon juice. Mix until smooth.

Spoon glaze over the top of the cake so it drips down the edges.

The cake can be eaten immediately.

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6 thoughts on “Food Preservation in the Little Town that Could

  1. Perri Pender

    That was a very interesting story, never knew that! Thank you for sharing. Love the lemon cake recipe too!

    1. Donna

      My mother use to make a lemon pound cake when I was younger. It was so great coming home from school and seeing that cake.

  2. Christine Peckelis

    This is embarrassing. I am a native and have family all around the lower Hudson Valley and I never knew that was where Gail Borden was from. I have passed the abandoned Borden plant on Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn for years and always assumed (yes, I know, never assume) that was where it all began.

    Thanks for both the history lesson and the cake recipe.

    1. Donna

      There are so many interesting things around here! The Barnum and Bailey circus was started near me. In fact, there’s a cemetery down the street with quite a few Barnums in it. Also, the tale of the dairy farmers being flooded out….I discovered this when we had a drought one year and saw all the stone walls that were built when the water disappeared. I decided to start looking into the history then because I knew the walls were there for a reason. That’s when I discovered that my town had a lot of dairy farmers, and the farms were flooded out when New York City decided to build a water system to obtain our water.

  3. WOW, did not know that Brewster is the founding home of Borden’s Eagle Brand, thanks so much for the post and now a delightful treat to add to the recipe box!

  4. Pat Bernitt

    Well, this was a history lesson for me…well done! Granted, New York City is something that everybody should see, but to experience the real beauty of New York “State,” head north. Unfortunately, too many people have no idea what they’re missing. If I lived there, I’d probably want to keep it my “secret.” Different lifestyle for sure, and I can understand why many people endure the long daily commute to NYC. Very nice blog.

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