J.D. HARRIS – A LEADING KENTVILLE MERCHANT (July 16/04)

The history books inform us that few wagons and carriages were found in Kings County before 1800. Thus it caused a stir when in 1823 or thereabouts a “Yankee peddler” arrived in Horton Corner with a horse-drawn wagon filled with tinware.

According to Mabel Nichols in The Devil’s Half Acre, it was the first wagon in the area and was quite a curiosity. People came from miles around to see the peddler’s “red wagon drawn by a white horse.” After the peddler sold his wares, Nichols said, the wagon and horse were purchased by James Delap Harris.

The arrival of the first wagon in the area was such a momentous event that it was deemed worthy of recording in the Wolfville history, Mud Creek – but with a different twist. “In 1816 a Yankee peddler brought a waggon load of tinware to Horton Corner and sold the outfit to Mrs. James Delap Harris.”

I’m interested in these historical tidbits because they mention a prominent citizen in Kentville’s history, the Hon. James Delap Harris. My interest was aroused when Ivan Smith e-mailed an extract from eBay regarding the sale of an 1824 five pound merchant scrip or note, issued by Kentville merchant James D. Harris. There was a bit of interesting history included in the sales pitch, explaining that merchants issued what amounted to their own money in the 19th century due to a general shortage of coins. “Many private merchants, well respected in their communities, took it upon themselves to issue paper small change notes to help alleviate the shortages,” reads the sales pitch.

The stature of James D. Harris obviously was such that the community accepted his notes. The Harris genealogy, on file at Kings County Museum, contains the following on James: He was a “prominent merchant and leading citizen of Kentville. Later he became a member of the Legislative Council at Halifax. He and his wife were long considered among the more important people of Kings County and the Province.”

James, a Planter descendant, was born in Cornwallis in 1782; he died in Halifax in 1858 and is buried in Oak Grove cemetery in Kentville. I scoured a number of history books for mention of James and came up with bits and pieces but little biographical information. He is mentioned at least four times in Eaton’s Kings County history, once in Louis Comeau’s Kentville history, once in the Mud Creek history as already quoted, and four times in Mabel Nichols book.

From these books, I found that James operated the first drugstore in Kentville. Mabel Nichols writes that James established the store in 1868 in partnership with Caleb H. Rand and L. J. Cogswell.

In his Kings County history, Arthur W. H. Eaton traces James’ ancestry back to the Planter grantee, Lebbeus Harris from Connecticut. Lebbeus represented Horton in the Legislature from 1761 to 1765 and James was to follow in his footsteps. Eaton lists James as a member of the provincial government and confirms his importance in the Kings County community. James’s tombstone reads that he was a “member of her Majesty’s Legislature Council for Nova Scotia.

Eaton agrees with Nichols in that James was an early Kentville merchant, one of the first after Henry Magee. However, Eaton writes that James ran a general store, not a drugstore. But perhaps in the 19th-century general stores and drugstores were synonymous.

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