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MacLAREN, ALEXANDER FERGUSON, businessman and politician; b. 3 Feb. 1854 in Perth, Upper Canada, son of John MacLaren and Helen (Ellen) Buchanan Ferguson; m. 29 April 1885 Janet McLeod in Woodstock, Ont., and they had a son; d. 19 April 1917 in Toronto.
When Alexander Ferguson MacLaren was quite young his family moved from the town of Perth to Perth County. Having settled first in Mitchell, they located two years later in nearby Cromarty. Alexander received a rudimentary education in public schools. At the age of 12 he stopped attending and began hiring himself out as a farm labourer.
At 17 MacLaren was taken on by a dairyman in Hibbert Township to learn the craft of cheese making, but he remained there for only a short while. In 1877 he was hired as a cheese buyer by Thomas Ballantyne* of Stratford, one of the largest cheese exporters in western Ontario. Later he accepted employment in the same capacity with a cheese factory in Ingersoll. He remained with it until 1890; in 1891 he formed a cheese-export company of his own in Stratford, MacLaren Brothers. Roughly a year later he introduced a new product, MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, which became phenomenally popular. Made from ground cheddar and sold in small porcelain containers, it was evidently one of the first soft, processed cheeses to be commercially distributed. In 1892 a branch factory was opened in Detroit. Within a decade MacLaren had established offices in Toronto, New York, London, Chicago, Detroit, Mexico, China, Japan, and Africa to market the cheese. His firm was incorporated as A. F. MacLaren Imperial Cheese Company Limited in 1899 and relocated in Toronto.
MacLaren’s association with Ballantyne, a Liberal mla, probably contributed to his own interest in politics, though his loyalties were with the Conservatives. Elected to the House of Commons in 1896 for Perth North, he was returned in 1900 and 1904 but was defeated in 1908. As a politician his performance was less than inspiring, in part because he was always a member of the opposition. He rarely made speeches, but when he did he spoke knowledgeably about agricultural topics, including matters related to the cheese industry, such as transport, storage, and government inspection.
MacLaren’s true vocation was business. A director for numerous companies, he remained active in his own cheese business for many years. In addition, he was on the executive of the Dairymen’s Association of Western Ontario from the early 1890s to 1906, serving as its president in 1896–97. He acted as a judge of cheese at major exhibitions in Chicago and Buffalo, N.Y., and at fairs throughout Ontario; on many occasions he represented the dairymen’s association at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition. In 1920 his cheese company would be purchased by J. L. Kraft and Brothers Company of Chicago, which also specialized in processed cheese.
Around 1910 MacLaren moved to Toronto, where he established a financial agency with his son, Kenneth Ferguson. Toward the end of his life he suffered from poor health, and until World War I took trips to European health resorts in attempts to regain his strength. He passed away in Toronto in 1917 as a result of kidney problems, and was buried there in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. During his last years he appears to have experienced an unexplainable decline in his fortunes: he died intestate, his only assets being $1,351 in the bank.
Devoted to business, MacLaren sought the status and connections political life could bring him. Although he never attained great prominence, he belonged to a class of self-made businessmen who contributed considerably to Ontario’s prosperity.
AO, RG 22-305, no.34305. Kraft General Foods Arch. (Morton Grove [Chicago]), “Kraft–MacLaren Cheese Company, Limited” (printed document, c. 1922, describing purchase of 1920). NA, MG 29, D61: 5464–65; RG 31, C1, 1871, Hibbert Township, Ont., div.3: 14; 1891, Stratford, Ont.: 20. Beacon (Stratford), 12 May 1896, 31 Oct. 1900, 31 Oct. 1904. Daily Herald (Stratford), 11 May, 13 June 1896. Globe, 20 April 1917. Sentinel-Review (Woodstock, Ont.), 1 May 1885. Toronto Daily Star, 19–20 April 1917. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1896–1908. Canadian who’s who (1910). The dairy industry in Canada, ed. H. A. Innis (Toronto, 1937). Dairymen’s assocs. of the prov. of Ontario, Annual reports (Toronto), 1901–6, reports of the Dairymen’s Assoc. of Western Ontario. Directories, Stratford, 1880/81, 1885/88, 1891, 1896, 1902/4; Toronto, 1911–16. W. S. Johnston and H. J. M. Johnston, History of Perth County to 1967 (Stratford, 1967). William Johnston, History of the county of Perth from 1825 to 1902 (Stratford, 1903; repr. 1976). National Portland Cement Company Limited, Prospectus (Toronto, 1901). Newspaper reference book. Ont., Dept. of Agriculture, Annual report (Toronto), reports of the dairymen’s and creameries’ assocs., 1893.