Beloved McClary stove holds many memories

This McClary stove is on display at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Man. | Sheri Hathaway photo

It was a versatile workhorse, drying out wet mittens, getting rid of old newspapers and warming bath water as well as cooking supper

Many who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s cherish warm and cozy memories of their mother’s McClary wood and coal stove. In addition to the parade of delicious food born out of it, other favourite images might include one or more of the following:

  • Jumping out of bed, running downstairs with your clothes clasped in your arms to warm them on the open oven door, then dressing there in the warmth while porridge bubbles and coffee perks beside you.
  • After an afternoon of fun in the snow, coming inside to remove wet socks and mittens and lay them to dry on the oven racks with the door open, filling the house with the damp smell of wet wool.
  • A stack of old letters and newspapers saved to use for fire-starter.
  • The tin match dispenser on the kitchen wall nearby.
  • Water being warmed in the reservoir for your bath, which also took place in the kitchen beside the stove, the warmest place in the house.
  • The wood box in the porch, which you had to fill occasionally from the stock pile in the yard.

McClary wasn’t the only stove manufacturer, but was the best known. Other stove makers included Beach, Moffat, Findlay, Home Comfort, and Guelph. We Canadians don’t often think that many successful businesses ever originated in Canada, but we can be proud of the story of the McClary stove.

John McClary was the 11th of 12 children, leaving him excluded from inheriting any part of his father’s farm near Westminster, Ont.

His older brother, Oliver, trained him as a tinsmith and the two formed a partnership called J. and O. McClary in 1852, based in London, an ironworks foundry. At the time, Oliver McClary already had a business making plowshares but John saw a need for stoves in this rapidly expanding country. They built a new foundry for stoves, which became their mainstay.

They formed a new business in 1871 called McClary Manufacturing, making farm implements, ironware and machinery, in addition to stoves.

In 1880, they added a product line of enamelware and small kitchen accessories. Today, you may see, in some museums and even some modern kitchens, a display of cast-iron frying pans or crockery bearing the McClary name.

Holding a non-union policy, the company occasionally experienced confrontations with the iron-molders union, but at the same time, John McClary held a reputation as a fair employer.

When their business first began, there were no railroads built in Canada. Railroad development opened the opportunity for increased marketing and stoves were loaded onto trains and sent west almost as fast as the Canadian Pacific rail line could be built to carry them there.

Becoming one of Canada’s biggest employers, it built six warehouses across the country, and began exporting to Britain, the West Indies and Australia. McClary was the largest manufacturer of wood- and coal-burning stoves across the globe, beginning in 1885. During these decades of growth, there was no holding back McClary and his energy and ambition.

He became involved in other businesses, notably as director and vice-president of the Ontario Loan and Debenture Company and the London Life Insurance Company. As well, he was a founding director of the London and Western Trusts Company Limited. He was active in the 1881 formation of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Exchange and then of the Board of Trade, but McClary Manufacturing remained his focus.

A range of stove models filled diverse needs. Small prototypes served apartments and bachelor shacks, but the McClary Pandora is the large, beautiful model we often imagine when speaking of a coal- and wood-burning stove.

Quite decorative with four cabriole animal feet, ornamental grill-work on the back and oven door, it had six burners, two swing-out hot pot stands and a reservoir for heating water on the left-hand side.

A lesser known model, the No. 33 McClary’s Van, warmed all CP Rail train cabooses (also called a van), especially designed with an oven attachment on the side. Being away on the rails for days at a time, the men made the caboose their travelling home while at work. They warmed their food or cooked it from scratch in the small oven and perked coffee on the top while the stove itself heated the car. The oven door was decorated with a picture of a caboose on its track.

As with all things, new technology moved into homes and sent the wood- and coal-burning stoves to junk yards until the scrap metal drives of the two world wars. Electric ranges were first produced in Canada in the 1920s and spread across the country alongside the installation of power lines. The McClary name appeared on electric ranges for a time, but the company was bought in 1927 by General Steel Wares, thus ending any family connection. The McClary name remains most commonly connected to wood and coal stoves.

My mother recalled a story of their McClary stove and its peculiar travels. Her telling of it goes this way:

“Harold’s parents bought a half section of land eight miles northeast of Marwayne, Alta., to which they moved in 1913 from Edmonton. The bungalow, when they bought the land, may have contained some basic furnishings — one of which would be a low coal and wood range with two top burners and a small oven for baking.

“The crop must have been fairly good in the 1920s when Harold’s parents ordered a new McClary kitchen range from the T. Eaton’s catalogue. What an exciting day when the stove arrived at the CPR station in Marwayne, all the way from Winnipeg. It was loaded onto a wagon and taken to the farm — all shiny new — complete with six burners, a larger oven, warming closet, and hot water reservoir at the right end. It was a great improvement over the old bachelor-type stove.

“They moved to Vancouver and Harold and I took over their farm. We took the McClary range with us in 1947 to a farm adjacent to Marwayne.

“We used it until 1952. Its only defect was the spring in the oven door, which Harold remedied by attaching a chain and hook to the door so it could be kept ajar.

“In 1952, we traded the range in on an electric stove and an annex, which we obtained from Willard Larson, who took the range to Lloydminster.

“My father, Wilbur McLean, bought a quarter section of land six miles southwest of Marwayne. He and Mother spent time during the summer there in a one-room shack he had purchased from Lloydminster. It contained the bare essentials in furnishing … but there was a coal and wood range for mother to prepare meals for the men.

“My father died in 1958 — at which time my brother, Mac McLean, moved the shack to his farm 10 miles north of Dewberry, Alta., for extra sleeping space in summer. Mac moved to Victoria in 1974 and gave the shack to me, thinking I’d use it as a lake cabin. In the interim, I had it moved to our farm adjacent to Marwayne, a distance of about 20 miles.

“As Harold worked in his shop one day in the winter of 1977, he thought of the range in the shack … and of the chain and hook he had put on his mother’s range.

“On his way to the house for dinner, he stopped in at the shack to look at the range there. He opened the oven door and sure enough, there was the chain and hook — the same he had attached many years ago. What a remarkable discovery. The McClary range had travelled 100 miles — and returned home.”

Today in London, Ont., the large and stately McClary House, the former home of John McClary, sits on the southwestern side of McClary Avenue and High Street. The property was designated by the city in 1985 for its heritage value under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.

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