RALPH S. EATON – PIONEER FRUIT GROWER (February 25/00)

Writing about early industries in his Kings County history, A. W. H. Eaton names the people who were leading fruit growers and pioneer orchardists. Among the early fruit growers Eaton writes about, Ralph Samuel Eaton is given prominence and there are flattering references to his development of Hillcrest Orchards.

Many people will remember Hillcrest Orchards. Famous in their day, Hillcrest Orchards were renowned across the Maritimes, and perhaps across Canada, if we accept the judgment of Eaton the historian.

There may have been substance to this claim of renown. The provincial government published a glossy tourist guide in 1923, featuring Hillcrest Orchards in a full-page photograph. In the photo the orchard is in blossom with horse-drawn farm equipment in the background; this is a folksy picture from pre-apple blossom festival days and its inclusion in the guide hints at Hillcrest’s tourist appeal and prominence.

A showplace in the 1920s and 30s, Hillcrest Orchards were once said to be the largest orchard of mixed fruit in Canada. The original orchard was located north of Kentville near Chipman Corner on Middle Dyke Road. An attractive, well-maintained apple orchard owned by Sterlings now occupies this site.

While older generation natives of this area will recall Hillcrest Orchards and its golden period, few remember Ralph Samuel Eaton. Who was this man who pioneered fruit growing and was instrumental in establishing Annapolis Valley orchards as a major industry and tourist attraction?

Eaton the historian included Ralph in his who’s who of early fruit growers along with the likes of Bishop Charles Inglis (of Bishop Pippin fame) the Hon. Charles Ramage Prescott (dubbed the “father of the apple industry”) and the Starrs (Samuel, Robert, William and John). Eaton mentions Hillcrest Orchards and Ralph several times in his history, referring to him as a genius and “one of the acknowledged masters of fruit culture (who) conceived and brought to successful issue the famous Cornwallis Hillcrest Orchards.”

As an additional tribute to Eaton the fruit grower, Eaton the historian includes an essay on the fruit industry by Ralph in his Kings County history. This historical sketch begins with the fruit growing efforts of the Acadians, takes us to the formation of the Fruit Grower’s Association – one of the oldest agricultural organizations in North America – and the opening of the experimental station in Kentville.

Ralph S. Eaton was descended from the planter Eatons who came to Kings County after the expulsion of the Acadians; and like most of the Eaton clan, he had scholarly leanings and an interest in the soil. He was a prominent pioneer fruit grower and his Hillcrest Orchards were undoubtedly a showplace of national repute But aside from the praise for Ralph and his orchards and inclusion of his essay in Eaton’s Kings County history, little information about him exists.

Eaton’s history has a detailed genealogy of the Kings County Eatons starting with David who settled here in 1761. All the Eatons with a Kings County ancestry are descended from David. Ralph can be found in the genealogy as a fifth generation descendant but no birth and death dates are given. James Fry’s sketch of Chipman Corner pays tribute to Ralph and Hillcrest Orchards but contains no biographical information. I was unable to find mention of Ralph and his contributions in the excellent history of the apple industry by Anne Hutten, Valley Gold. Ralph it seems is practically a mystery man.

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