World’s largest cheese magnate’s humble Fort Erie beginnings


Published April 25, 2023 at 11:04 am

One of J.L. Kraft's first motorized delivery trucks circa 1936. The slogan "Decidedly Better" can be seen on the side. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Say the name J.L. Kraft and there may not be a person in North America who doesn’t associate it with exactly one thing – cheese.

However, what many don’t know is Kraft – given name: James Lewis Krafft – was born on a small farm in the Stevensville suburb of Fort Erie on December 11, 1874, the second of 11 children.

To be fair, he didn’t become an industry giant until he moved to the United States but it all started here in Fort Erie.

After immigrating in 1903 from Stevensville to Buffalo and then Chicago, Kraft began selling cheese from a horse-drawn wagon. Kraft developed and patented in 1916 a revolutionary process for pasteurizing cheese so it would resist spoiling.

J.L. Kraft’s first cheese wagon, shown in Chicago in 1903. (Photo: Stockton
Township Public Library)

As a young man, Kraft went into the cheese business, ending up in Chicago, where he sold his wares from a wagon for a while.

In 1914, Kraft’s company purchased its first cheese factory in Stockton, Illinois.

His big breakthrough came two years later in 1916 when he received a patent for his “improved process of sterilizing cheese” so that it would keep without spoiling. Kraft’s processed cheese quickly became a huge success.

The U.S. Army bought six million pounds of it during World War I, and millions of pounds more during World War II.

In-between came a product welcomed by families struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which were originally put together in one convenient package back in 1937 by one of Kraft’s sales reps.

The many packages of Kraft Mac & Cheese over the years, the first being the bottom left.

Before emigrating to the United States at the age of 29, Kraft and his family attended the Reformed Mennonite Church in Stevensville. A newer Reformed Mennonite Church building can still be found in this small hamlet at the corner of West Main Street and Ott Road.

The cemetery outside the church contains the tombstone of his parents and other relatives, all with the original spelling of Kraft with two ‘F’s.

In the Stevensville area, there is a plaque honouring him, two roads named after him and, of course, the home he grew up in remains at 3347 Bowen Road, on the southwest corner of Bowen and Winger Roads, in the Town of Fort Erie.

Born in Fort Erie in 1874, J.L. Kraft moved to the
United States and became a giant in the cheese industry.

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