By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese


240 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55082-102-4
DDC 338.1'773'0971309





Reviewed by J.H. Galloway

J.H. Galloway is a geography professor at the University of Toronto.


For nearly 100 years, cheese factories were a familiar sight in the
landscape of southern Ontario, and the manufacture of cheddar cheese was
an important part of the agricultural economy. In the middle 19th
century, with the decline of wheat as a cash crop, many farmers turned
to the raising of dairy cattle, and much of the milk was used to make
cheddar cheese. There was a market for the cheese in the United Kingdom.
A factory could be built for $2000 to $3000 and required only a small
labor force; the milk sales to the factory provided farmers with a
steady income. Making cheese became a growth industry. In 1867, there
were 235 cheese factories; by the early 20th century, 1233. Thereafter,
the factories became fewer but larger as economies of scale took hold,
and Kraft and other large companies moved in to reorganize the industry.
By the 1960s, the small cheese factory, symbol of local initiative and
enterprise, had almost disappeared from the scene.

This account of the industry is aimed at the general reader. The style
of writing is informal, and much of the information is anecdotal. A
strong sense of nostalgia pervades the book. There are many pictures of
individual factories and of other local worthies. Menzies uses these
photos, anecdotes, and her own childhood memories to give an impression
of what life around the cheese factory was like. We learn a little about
how the cheese was made, and how over the years the work became more
professional with the help of dairymen’s associations and dairy
schools. But there is little on the finances of the industry or on the
organization of the export trade, and no graphs or tables to show the
rise of production or the importance of the industry in relation to
other aspects of the province’s agriculture.


Menzies, Heather., “By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,