EARLY TRAVEL WRITERS FROM 1890 TO THE 1950s (November 30/01)

One of Nova Scotia’s better-known natives, Will R. Bird, is noted as the author of numerous books with historical themes.

Bird is perhaps less known as a travel writer – that is, if his two books about exploring the province can truly be called travel writing. In these books – Off-Trail in Nova Scotia and This is Nova Scotia – Bird explored the lesser known byways of the province in the early 1950s, digging out its history and collecting quaint anecdotes and local lore.

If you’ve never read these books, I recommend you put them on your Christmas list. Bird captures the essence of the long settled areas he visited, and in the seaside communities especially he has faithfully projected their marine flavour.

Will R. Bird wasn’t the first to write books about exploring Nova Scotia, however. Nearly two decades before Birds’ books appeared, Ryerson Press published Down in Nova Scotia by Clara Dennis. This book, and I believe another by Ms. Dennis in the same vein, explores the remote regions of the province. Like Bird does later, Dennis retells local legends, interviews colourful characters and gives short historical accounts of various communities.

If you compare the Dennis and Bird books, you’ll note immediatly how the latter appears to copy the format and style of the former. They are much alike, perhaps because the authors had the same publisher. Bird’s books are better known and are still in print as paperbacks. Dennis was also a native Nova Scotian (and perhaps connected with the daily newspaper Dennis family). Her book(s) are no longer in print that I know of but can be found in local used book stores.

Even earlier, another famous Maritimes writer, Charles G. D. Roberts, authored articles that were similar in content to the Dennis and Bird books. Roberts is best noted as a poet and the author of nature study books; he is less known as a writer of history and it’s difficult to imagine that Sir Charles would stoop to churning out prose of a commercial nature aimed at the tourist trade.

However, this is precisely what Roberts did in the Canadian Guide-Book in 1891. At the time Roberts was professor of English Literature in King’s College, Windsor, a position he held from 1885 until 1895. He had already made his mark as a poet and had at least two volumes of poetry published before he researched and wrote the 1891 edition of the Canadian Guide-Book. I called it a tourist book and it was all of this and a bit more; the subtitle claiming it was a tourist and sportsman’s guide to eastern Canada and Newfoundland.

Roberts’ work in this publication may have inspired Dennis and Bird. I have several copies of pages from the Guide for this area and like Dennis and Bird, Roberts mentions a bit of local history. Otherwise, the Guide was meant to be something a tourist carried and read before he set out to explore the countryside. The language is plain for the most part, but on occasion Roberts indulges in some fancy and poetic prose.

The Wolfville of 1890, for example, is “embowered in apple-orchards, and ranged on a sunny slope facing the marshes, the Blue basin and Blomidon.” The Cornwallis Valley has “deep alluvial soil of quenchless fertility’ and its climate, “the sparkle of sea air.” In Kentville, there is a “brawling amber brook,” and “everywhere is close to everywhere else.”

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