GREAT FIRES, FAT KENTVILLE MERCHANTS (April 10/07)

Based on the travel books Ryerson Press published on mainland Nova Scotia in the early 1930s and 1940s, one can assume the apple blossom festival was making the province popular as a tourist destination.

A few years after the festival started, Ryerson released two travel books by Clara Dennis, Down in Nova Scotia, and More About Nova Scotia. These were published in 1934 and 1937, along with a later travel book about Cape Breton by Dennis (Cape Breton Over) for which I have no publication date.

In 1947, Ryerson released another travelogue on Bluenose country, To Nova Scotia by T. Morris Longstreth. This is similar in format to the Dennis travelogues in that the author visits many of the towns and villages of the province and discusses their history. It isn’t as detailed as the Dennis books and not as well written, but I found it interesting for several reasons.

First of all, for several years I’ve been searching for information about a great fire that destroyed vast tracts of forest in this region around the time of the Acadian occupation of the Valley. I first found mention of the fire in a book by Gwendolyn Vaughan Shand. In Historic Hants County Shand wrote that in 1710 the “whole forest area between the Avon and the Gaspereau River in Kings County was leveled” by a great fire. I’ve exhausted all potential sources looking for information on the fire, including historical works on the Acadian period, but have found nothing.

Longstreth also mentions a fire that destroyed vast tracts of forest in this region. However, it may not be the fire Shand refers to since Longstreth says it didn’t affect the Valley and occurred before the Acadian period. In the chapter on Kentville he writes: “Scientists say a gigantic fire once burned Nova Scotia bare …. but the (Annapolis) Valley escaped this prehistoric conflagration.”

So was there a great fire, or possibly two great conflagrations? One that devastated much of the province but spared the Valley, and another that wiped out the woodlands of Kings and Hants County. All I can say is that the research goes on.

Also interesting is Longstreth’s irreverent, disrespectful treatment of Kentville and its merchant class. First he compliments Kentville, a “town whose chief delight (in the 1930s) is to manufacture mill machinery, gas engines, woodenware, evaporated apples, and custom-made boots.”

However, Longstreth concludes his observations on the Kentville of his time with a few little digs: “Life in Kentville is the sleek life.” It is a town where “prosperity seeps from the earth and the few goblins seen on Hallowe’en all have double chins. To be a middleman in Kentville is to know the apotheosis of a quiet fatness.”

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