While it was never a bustling shipbuilding center like Canning, and there was no established shipyard, Kentville can rightfully claim to be among the communities in Kings County where ships were first built.
In fact, some of the first vessels built in Kings County were constructed on the banks of the Cornwallis River well inside the town limits. One ship, and possibly two or more, were built near the Goodyear Tire store little more than a stone’s throw below the bridge.
“It is said that the first vessel built in the county was a schooner rigged craft, of abut 40 tons register, built at the Cornwallis Town Plot about 1790,” A. W. H. Eaton writes in his Kings County history. Just over two decades later, in 1813, one Handley Chipman “built a brig of some two hundred tons,” Eaton writes. This vessel was built on the banks of the Cornwallis River “near the bridge at Kentville.”
Eaton also says in 1846, one James Edward DeWolf built a barque in the same location. Appropriately, DeWolf called his vessel The Kent, in honour no doubt of the Duke of Kent who had given Kentville its name some two decades earlier.
Another historical source verifies that Kentville had a brief fling with shipbuilding. About 90 years ago, W. C. Milner compiled from various sources a history book he titled The Basin of Minas and Its Early Settlers. In the section on the “Town Plot” in the Cornwallis Township Milner writes the following about shipbuilding with a reference to Kentville: “The first vessel built by the New England settlers was said to be one at Town Plot, Cornwallis River, about 1790. It was 40 tons register. In 1813, Handley Chipman built a 200 ton brig on the river near Kentville. In 1846, J. E. DeWolf built there a barque.”
Milner may have been quoting Eaton but it isn’t likely. At the time Milner was chief archivist for Nova Scotia and he had access to all the provincial historical records. In other words, Milner could easily have verified that vessels were indeed built by Chipman and DeWolf in Kentville.
Milner writes elsewhere that the business of the county (Kings) at one time was shipbuilding and “nearly every man possessing brains became more or less an expert.” He adds that there was “little wonder if in time the shores of the (Minas) Basin were not one vast shipyard.”
With all this activity it’s not difficult to understand why a few ships were built well up the Cornwallis River in Kentville. Milner suggests that there may have been other vessels constructed in or near Kentville on the Cornwallis River, along the dyke area in the section known as “the Klondyke.” However, he offers no proof and may have been confusing Kentville with Wolfville where there was also a spate of shipbuilding on a small scale.
“A few miles below Kentville, perhaps even within the town’s limits, several more vessels other than those produced by Chipman and DeWolf were built,” Milner writes. However, I’ve looked at several other reference books regarding shipbuilding in Kings County and couldn’t find another reference to Kentville.