Most people living in North Grenville today have heard about the native son who grew up to become Ontario Premier. G. Howard Ferguson is remembered in the municipality today through the Ferguson Forest Centre, for his role in establishing Kemptville College, and as the man who brought us the LCBO.
But there is another provincial Premier with strong Kemptville connections who is almost completely unknown in North Grenville today, yet his career has some fascinating parallels to Ferguson’s, and his legacy is probably as important to the people of his province. His name is Alexander Cameron Rutherford, and he was the first ever Premier of Alberta, between 1905 and 1910. He is also referred to as the “Father of the University of Alberta”.
Alexander Cameron Rutherford was born on February 2, 1857, on a farm in Osgoode Township, Carleton County, Canada West. He was the son of James Rutherford and Elizabeth Cameron who had immigrated from Scotland in 1855. Alexander was educated at a local public school; at a high school in Metcalfe, Ontario; and at the Canadian Literary Institute, a Baptist College located at Woodstock, Ontario. After graduation, he taught in a school in Osgoode for a year before attending McGill University, where he graduated in 1881 with both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Civil Law degrees.
When he was twenty-eight, Alexander was called to the Ontario Bar and, after working with an Ottawa law firm for a few years, moved to Kemptville in 1888 and joined the law firm of Hodgkins, Kidd, and Rutherford as a junior partner. On December 19, 1888, he married Martha ‘Mattie’ Birkett, daughter of William and Elizabeth Birkett of Ottawa. Two of the couple’s three children, Cecil Alexander and Hazel Elizabeth, were born during the ten years the family lived in Kemptville.
Alexander was a dedicated Baptist and attended the Baptist Church on Clothier Street west, now a private residence, where he was President of the Young People’s Union. He was also involved in the Masons, the Foresters and the Ancient Order of Independent Workmen. There are many uncertainties surrounding his time in Kemptville. He is listed as living on Prescott Street, on the site where Mr. Mozarella’s is today, but there is no record of him owning property there at any time. It is possible he simply rented the fine house in front of which he and his wife were pictured in 1893. Aside from his law practice, Alexander operated a money-lending business at a time when there were no banks in town. This was an occupation he shared with G. Howard Ferguson, another lawyer working in Kemptville at that time.
He made a trip out west in 1886, where, it is said, he was investigating the disappearance of his cousin. This visit apparently made a strong impression on him, and in August of 1894 he returned west on a second visit, this time staying in South Edmonton. He was favourably impressed by what he saw as the potential of the small settlement and planned to start a new life there. In June, 1895 he and the family moved permanently to South Edmonton, District of Alberta, in the North-West Territories, now known as Strathcona. He almost immediately opened a law office and began a very successful career in law and property development before moving into politics.
After serving as Deputy Speaker of the legislative Assembly, Alexander campaigned vigorously for provincial status for the North West Territories, and was held in such high regard that he was elected leader of the Alberta Liberal Party and contested the first election to the new provincial assembly in 1905. He defeated the Conservatives under R. B. Bennett to become the first Premier of the new Province. Bennett survived the defeat and went on to become Prime Minister of Canada.
Alexander was a man with many interests. He helped establish the University of Alberta (located in his adopted home town of Strathcona), ensured that Edmonton, and not Calgary, would be the capital of the province, as well as serving on the Senate of the University of Alberta (1911-27) the Advisory Board of the Y.M.C.A. (1913-41) and the Edmonton Branch of the Historical Society of Alberta (president, 1919-41). He co-founded the Great Western Garment Company in 1911, later known as GWG, which became the biggest clothing manufacturer in the British Commonwealth.
But, between 1888 and 1895, Alexander C. Rutherford was just a small-town lawyer in Kemptville, where he has been almost completely forgotten. But he left an unfortunate legacy behind in one area at least. Perhaps following his example, many of the members of the Kemptville Baptist Church appear to have moved to Alberta following Alexander’s departure in 1895. So many, in fact, that the church, the oldest in Kemptville, had to close in 1914 due to lack of members.