The Man Behind Mephisto: Fred Magee — An Extraordinary Entrepreneur

Throughout New Brunswick there are several towns closely linked with business enterprises. Who could describe St. Stephen without mentioning Ganongs; or visit Florenceville and overlook McCains? For the first half of the twentieth century, the same might be said of Port Elgin. This was Magee territory, and while there were other important businesses, none had the wide ranging influence of Fred Magee Limited.

Industrialist, financier, politician, educator and benefactor, Fred Magee was born in nearby Baie Verte on May 29, 1875; the son of Thomas Magee and Olive Oulton Magee. He attended the local school and in 1893 went on to study at the University of New Brunswick. His father, Thomas Magee operated a store in Baie Verte for many years. Following the family tradition, Fred, at age 22, opened a general store in Port Elgin.

But before long, young Magee spotted a much greater opportunity; exporting canned lobster. He was never to look back. From the beginning, Fred Magee demonstrated a flair for marketing. A trademark or brand name was required for his new enterprise. Suggestions such as Port Elgin Lobster or even Magee Brand Lobster were discarded in favour of something much more distinctive.

Few were aware that Magees eventual selection of a brand name was influenced by his love of music and especially the opera. In later life he frequently attended New Yorks famous Metropolitan Opera. Gounods well known opera Faust based on a poem by Johann Goethe, has as one of its main characters, Mephistopheles, the devil in disguise. The shortened form of the devils name was Mephisto, Magees choice for a brand name. Soon, the Mephisto brand label, with a red devil lurking in the background, became known world wide.

In addition to his marketing ability, Fred Magee demonstrated a keen grasp of entrepreneurial skills. Although Mephisto brand canned lobster was making money, he recognized the folly of relying on a single product. Smoked herring was then added and before long Magee had three plants in New Brunswick and one in Nova Scotia producing smoked herring. The firm also began buying herring and lobster from smaller producers in the region.

Cans in quantity were required in the lobster cannery; while the smoked herring plants needed wooden boxes and barrels. To Magee the question was: Why buy these elsewhere when they might be produced more cheaply on location? Soon a factory producing sanitary tin cans and a shook mill, manufacturing containers for smoked herring, joined the cannery in Port Elgin. Waste from the shook mill was utilized as fuel in the nearby power plant. Fred Magee Limited was now not only producing containers for its own expanding business; smaller lobster canneries all along the Northumberland coast from Kouchibougac NB to Merigomish NS were being supplied from Port Elgin. As early as 1906 a branch of the parent company was established in Pictou, Nova Scotia.

In order to market a growing list of products, sales representatives were appointed in key centres such as: New York, London, Paris, Hamburg, Stockholm, as well as in the Caribbean, and at various locations in Africa and Asia. Fred Magee Limited advertisements of the period carried the caption: Represented On Five Continents 100% Maritime Owned And Operated. To no ones surprise, Fred Magee was soon attracting attention in the outside business and financial community.

On June 22, 1920 Magee became a charter director of the Moncton based Central Trust Company. As a point of interest, the first President of Central Trust was Herbert Mariner Wood a Sackville businessman, and numbered among the other directors was Charles W. Fawcett, operator of the well known Sackville foundry. Magee was later to serve as President and Chair of the Board of Central Trust.

A member of the Westmorland County Council for a number of years, it was widely expected that Magee would enter provincial politics. His first try in 1912 ended in defeat; however, he went on to be elected as one of the Liberal MLAs for Westmorland, and served in the Legislature from 1917 through to the mid 1920s. Named to the provincial cabinet, Magee was President of the Executive Council and Minister Without Portfolio in the administration of Premier W. E. Foster. One of his major responsibilities from 1918 to 1926 was to chair the New Brunswick Vocational Education Board.

Years after Magee left active politics, he wrote a letter to one of the Westmorland MLAs requesting that a stretch of road in the Port Elgin area be paved. The member responded in typical bureaucratic fashion that the road would be paved as soon as priorities permitted. Magees response was terse. He informed the MLA that he had spent $5,000. getting him elected; and if the road was not paved that summer, he would spend $10,000. getting him defeated. It was immediately paved.

In spite of the harsh economic climate of the 1930s, Fred Magee Limited continued to prosper. In the depth of the Depression, while competitors were falling by the wayside, Magee gambled on an expansion of the Pictou plant. He had already experimented with the canning of other products such as vegetables and strawberries at the Port Elgin cannery. The cannery in Pictou was active only during the short spring lobster season. During the summers of 1935–36 he enlisted the cooperation of several farmers in the Pictou area, and planted test plots of various varieties of garden peas. The right soil, proper fertilization and staggered planting convinced Mageee that canned peas, to which string beans were later added, could extend operations at the cannery beyond the May-June lobster season.

Another Magee hunch paid dividends. Soon more than 100 farmers were growing peas and beans for canning at the Pictou plant. Eventually cans of Mephisto Brand Green Peas and Yellow String Beans became familiar items on grocery shelves thoughout the Maritimes and beyond. In addition, a new cash crop was offered farmers in Pictou and Westmorland Counties. Magee also realized that the pods and vines from this venture might be turned into money. This waste product was subsequently sold for silage.

On the community level Fred Magee was a Member of the Board of Trade, a charter Rotarian, and strong supporter of the Botsford and Westmorland Agricultural Society which still sponsors an annual exhibition in Port Elgin. He married Myrtle R. McLeod, daughter of John and Mary McLeod of Port Elgin. They had one daughter who died in infancy. Both Fred and Myrtle Magee were active members of St. James Presbyterian Church. The striking memorial window in the chancel was donated by the Magee family.

Aside from business, the cause that overshadowed all others for Fred Magee was education. From his days as chair of the Provincial Vocational Education Board onward, Magee championed a practical vocational education at every opportunity. It was his belief that all students should not be channelled through a single academically oriented curriculum. Magee was the driving force behind the construction of a magnificent and well equipped Regional Memorial High School in Port Elgin. Dedicated to the fallen in two World Wars, the institution with its diversified curriculum was for many years the flagship secondary school in New Brunswick. Constructed on a 15 acre lot in the centre of the village, the land was the gift of Myrtle Magee; while her husband donated $50,000 for the construction of a 700 seat auditorium-gymnasium.

Fred Magee admitted being a university dropout; but unlike many others, he was determined to do something about it. From his teenage years, he had but one career ambition to enter the world of business. In keeping with his views on secondary education, it was also his opinion that the traditional university curriculum was of little use in meeting the objectives of students entering business. Accordingly, Fred Magee never completed his undergraduate degree at UNB.

Years later, from a position as a member of the UNB Senate, Magee campaigned for the establishment of courses in commerce; only to met by a wall of indifference and opposition. Not easily outmaneuvered, he sweetened his proposal with a substantial financial donation. This had the desired effect, courses in commerce were approved, and over time a four year degree program in Business Administration was established. In 1947, Fred Magee was awarded the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, by the University of New Brunswick. A graduate at last! One suspects that an old UNB classmate Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook and then Chancellor of the University, played a role in this honour.

Time passes and today only a few people remain with memories of the man behind Mephisto. Reminiscences from some of these, combined with the paper trail left by a person of Magees stature have helped piece together this outline. Opinions varied, but all recalled his interest in people. While he might appear gruff at times, Magee was not above helping employees experiencing difficulties, financial or otherwise. The family home remains and is now known as The Magee Complex for senior citizens. Next door, the building that was once the nerve centre of Fred Magee Limited, houses the Port Elgin Village offices. Fortunately, his massive custom made oak desk, around which so many deals were cut survives; while the Regional Memorial Regional High School has been renovated for industrial purposes by Atlantic Windows Limited.

Fred Mageee died a half century ago, on May 5, 1952. Two days later at his funeral the auditorium of the Regional Memorial High School was filled to overflowing. Beyond the tributes voiced by associates and friends, two questions beg for answers: What caused the Magee empire to collapse? and What was his legacy?

To begin, the company was not geared for adaptation or industrial change. New methods of refrigeration and fast freezing spelled the end for canned lobster. Live lobsters were now being shipped directly to New England and central Canadian markets. Thanks to air freight, lobsters caught one day in the Northumberland Strait turned up on restaurant tables in New York and Toronto, the next day. The availability of fresh produce the year round; and a preference for the quality and convenience of frozen vegetables soon surpassed the canned varieties. The Mephisto Brand disappeared from the marketplace.

An answer to the second question is more complex. Many points might be cited; but from the vantage point of today, Magees major legacy stems from his educational interests. Once called the father of vocational education in New Brunswick, Magee was decades ahead of his time in urging a broader high school and university curriculum. Lastly, unlike Lord Beaverbrook, who was not noted for modesty, Magee never courted public favour, nor did he want his name attached to projects in which he played a key role.

Beyond this commendable trait, the name of Fred Magee deserves to be better known in the province and region where he achieved so much.