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McKERGOW, JOHN, exporter, businessman, and politician; b. 27 Feb. 1847 in South Moreton, England, son of Adam McKergow, a joiner; m. 12 Nov. 1868 Laura Barrie at First Baptist Church in Montreal, and they had ten children; d. 16 May 1920 in Westmount, Que.

In the early 1850s John McKergow’s family left England and settled in the working class neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montreal. John received his elementary schooling in the city’s public schools and at the Model School of Montreal. At 16 he was hired by the Grand Trunk Railway, which assigned him to its stores department. He remained with this company until 1867. That year – on 1 July, as he liked to recall – he found a job in a wholesale grocery business just started by Albert Azro Ayer in Montreal. Originally hired as a clerk, he soon became one of the firm’s principal partners and he was its vice-president from 1872 to 1913.

The progress of A. A. Ayer and Company was closely linked to the expansion of milk processing and export. In the mid 19th century farmers in Ontario and Quebec began increasing their milk production to take advantage of demand in the American and British markets. The industry grew as a network of dairies and cheese factories was established, which in the course of some 20 years covered most agricultural regions of the two provinces. By the 1860s a number of Montreal food merchants had become interested in marketing butter and cheese. During the summer their representatives combed the countryside in the Eastern Townships, the Montreal region, and eastern Ontario buying the produce of rural households and of cheese factories and dairies. The merchants then arranged to sell it, mainly to wholesalers in large American and British cities but also to retailers in Montreal. A. A. Ayer and Company soon began specializing in the export of cheese and butter to England. This market expanded swiftly in the second half of the 19th century, with more than two-thirds of England’s cheese imports coming from Canada by the end of that period [see Thomas Ballantyne*; David Murdoch Macpherson]. Ayer’s became a leading exporter of dairy products in Canada and even, according to contemporary observers, one of the largest dairy produce businesses in the world.

McKergow’s career was not confined simply to managing the company. He tried by several means to improve the conditions under which the dairy industry operated. For example, he was the first president of the Provincial Butter and Cheese Association, established in 1892 by the Montreal Board of Trade. This association concerned itself with the classification, transportation, and storage of dairy products and monitored their quality, reputation, and promotion on domestic and foreign markets. In the same spirit, McKergow occasionally attended the annual meetings of the various associations of milk producers and butter and cheese manufacturers in Quebec and Ontario.

The success of A. A. Ayer and Company enabled McKergow to invest in other enterprises and to sit on the boards of several large companies. He was president of the Montreal Lumber Company and the Laprairie Brick Company, and a director of Sun Life, the Crown Trust Company, the Permanent Insurance Agency, and Peter Lyall and Sons Construction Company. He also served on the council of the Montreal Board of Trade from 1893 to 1897 and as its president in 1897–98.

From 1913 McKergow withdrew more and more from the world of business. He remained active in the public life of Westmount, where he had lived since the late 1880s. A Baptist, he was a founding member and deacon of Olivet Church there. During World War I he was one of the organizers (and honorary lieutenant-colonel) of the 58th Westmount Rifles. At this time, however, McKergow was mainly interested in municipal affairs. For about ten years he sat on the local school board. During his term as chairman (1907–8) he helped get a number of schools, including Roslyn School, built. He was mayor of Westmount from 1913 to 1919, and his election coincided with the setting up of a new management system for the municipality. Following a scandal and deep divisions within the community about overspending on the construction of a firehall, the Westmount council decided to hire a general manager, the first in Canada. Council’s role was consequently much reduced, being limited to questions of legislation and supervision.

A respected businessman, John McKergow died at the age of 73 in his Westmount home, soon after returning from Florida where he had spent the winter with his family. During his career he had been one of the entrepreneurs who strongly influenced the development and consolidation of an important sector of Canadian agriculture and its integration into the networks of the world economy.

Yves Otis

ANQ-M, CE1-85, 14 déc. 1854, 21 sept. 1867, 12 nov. 1868; CE1-86, 1875–82; CE1-88, 16 déc. 1869, 1872. Montreal Board of Trade Arch., Council annual reports, 1888–1920 (mfm. at NA); Minute-books, 1888–1920 (mfm. at NA). NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Montreal, Sainte-Anne, div.2: 26; div.10: 41; 1881, Montreal, Saint-Antoine, div.12: 72; 1891, Hochelaga (Montreal), Côte Saint-Antoine, div.1: 28. Canadian Gleaner (Huntingdon, Que.), 1870–85. Gazette (Montreal), 17, 19 May 1920. Montreal Daily Star, 17 May 1920. Montreal Herald and the Daily Telegraph, 13 Nov. 1918, continued as Montreal Herald, 17 May 1920. La Presse, 17 mai 1920. Westmount News (Westmount, Que.), 19 Oct. 1907; 27 Dec. 1912; 10, 17, 20, 24 Jan. 1913. The book of Montreal, a souvenir of Canada’s commercial metropolis, ed. E. J. Chambers (Montreal, 1903), 100. J. S. Bryce, “The making of Westmount, Quebec, 1870–1929: a study of landscape and community construction” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1990). Canada Gazette, 17 March 1900: 2003. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). M. G. Cohen, Women’s work, markets, and economic development in nineteenth-century Ontario (Toronto, 1988). Directory, Montreal, 1850–1920. Molly Fripp, Roslyn: the story of a Canadian school ([Westmount, 1977]). Normand Perron, “Genèse des activités laitières, 1850–1960,” in Agriculture et colonisation au Québec; aspects historiques, Normand Séguin, édit. (Montréal, 1980), 113–40.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Yves Otis, “McKERGOW, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 29, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckergow_john_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckergow_john_14E.html
Author of Article: Yves Otis
Title of Article: McKERGOW, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: August 29, 2014