I’m in Louis Comeau’s kitchen watching him trying to remove paint from a Graves apple juice can. It looks like an ordinary can but Louis tells me there’s something special about it. “These cans are hard to find today,” he says. “I have no idea how old it is, the pre-70s probably, but it comes from the period when Canada Foods Ltd. operated in Kentville and it’s part of the town’s history. Juice cans with ‘Kentville’ printed on it are scarce; I hope I can restore it.”
While he works with the paint remover Louis tells me he searched several years for a Graves can. He’s looked unsuccessfully for a old Graves pickle jar – “apple juice and pickles were the only products Canada Foods made in the town” – but he’s had better luck in collecting souvenirs from other early Kentville industries.
Louis showed me some of these souvenirs when he tired of working on his juice can and we went to his basement. I said basement but it’s more like a museum in miniature. On the wall an 1819 Brown Bess musket. A massive studio camera used around the turn of the century by Kentville’s famous photographer, A. L. Hardy. A Kings County Canadian Hussars badge once worn by Captain Robert S. Masters, who served as Kentville’s sixth mayor from 1895 to 1897. On the walls, in display cases, in stacks of photo albums, in filing cabinets are hundreds of artifacts from Kentville’s past.
It’s an amazing, organized collection and there isn’t anything like it in this area. But even more amazing is the lore Louis has at his fingertips. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing at a bottle. Louis responded with a brief history of the Morris Bros. Bottling Company. Established around 1912, located on the site of the old Methodist Church on Main Street, Morris Bros. bottled and sold several varieties of “pop” before Pepsi bought them out.
“This is a Chipman’s Golden Glow cider bottle and one of their apple wine bottles,” Louis said. “An 1890 photo of Masters Drug Store; they operated at least until 1903 on Main Street,” he continued. “A medicine bottle from Masters’ store that’s over 90 years old. Invoices, labels, envelopes from the same store.”
“How do you keep it all straight?” I asked.
“Everything’s in my computer’s database,” Louis replied. “I have a list of all my Kentville artifacts, over 5,000 of them. Histories, data on town streets, descriptions of 831 old photographs, post cards, newspaper clippings; even your column is in there.”
“I’m flattered,” I said, “but why do you do this? Collect stuff on Kentville, I mean?”
“I’m interested in the subject,” Louis said. “It’s my hobby. My father started the collection and I’ve continued his work, organizing and cataloguing everything.”
Louis turned to his computer. “Look at this,” he said.
On the screen flashed a history of Kentville starting with the Micmacs using the crossing where the bridge spans the Cornwallis River. “It’s a computer slide show,” Louis said.
Using the mouse I clicked through Kentville’s Acadian period, the time of the Planters, the catastrophes, the glorious and less-than-glorious moments in Kentville’s past. On the screen a historical quiz came up. “Try it,” Louis suggested. “The first part is easy, the second part … well, maybe you won’t have any trouble with it.”
I squinted at a question on the screen. How many streets in Kentville are named after former town mayors? “I didn’t know any were,” I mumbled, settling down before the computer screen. Next week, the quiz.