SMALL POTATOES AND FEW IN A HILL (January 10/97)

In 1828, Joseph Howe began a series of excursions into the countryside of the province, writing about them in the pages of his newspaper, the Novascotian. His travel sketches were published in book form by the University of Toronto Press in the ’70s and it’s there to read if you want to know what the Annapolis Valley was like over 150 years ago.

Howe always had a kind word about the major Valley towns he visited on his rambles nearly 50 years before the railroad arrived – most were insignificant villages in his day – but he also wrote bluntly about their shadier aspects and this makes interesting reading.

Howe spares no one. About Windsor, which early in the 19th century was one of the major commercial areas, Howe writes, “Of this beautiful little village you have doubtless heard much and read more.” Then, after telling his readers about Windsor’s college, its academy and its “rural and elegant seats,” Howe gives us this impression of its inhabitants: “I might entertain you for hours with the manners and peculiarities of the villagers… and amuse you with sad stories of their inhospitality and pride.”

Howe is more unkind with Kentville. He paints an unflattering picture of this then village which is just beginning to flex it muscles as a commercial centre.

Typically, Howe first praises the town before dealing with what he sees as Kentville’s less appealing side. “We are now approaching the sweet little village of Kentville and a pleasanter place either to look at or be in, is not within the range of the North Mountain – it is seated in a valley and contains about 30 houses near its centre, the Horton and Cornwallis streets cross each other, and hence the old name of Horton Corner.”

After this pleasant introduction, and before he has kind words about the amenities at the Kentville Inn, Howe dips his pen in vitriol. “And now let me warn you that you are getting into a bad neighbourhood, so remember it behoves you to beware, for hereabouts do dwell a set of fellows who are past all endurance: hardly do you get into the village before some long-legged merchant pops you in a gig and gallops you away to church – or some other sinner of the same stamp gets. you into his house, from which it is no easy matter to escape,” Howe may have had tongue in cheek here, but he leaves not doubt that Kentville inhabitants were heavy drinkers

It would have been interesting to see what Howe would have said about Wolfville and if he would have pulled his punches. Strangely, the travelling newspaperman makes only vague reference to this then prominent centre. Howe must have passed through Wolfville or close by it. He describes the Gaspereau Valley and its river and raves about the beauty of the Horton area which he views while travelling to Kentville; but somehow he misses Wolfville.

Perhaps it was the journalistic style of the times to paint unflattering pictures of people and places. A portrait of Kentville in a November 1883 issue of the New Star notes that in its early days, the town was “small potatoes and few in a hill.”

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