In one of my first history columns for this paper in the 1980s I wrote about early days in Kentville, the period when hitching posts stood in front of every store and blacksmith shops were located downtown. At one time it was common in Kentville to operate blacksmith shops in the main business area alongside clothing, grocery and drug stores.
Blacksmiths were a necessity in early Kentville, of course, and in its heyday the town boasted of having as many as three or four. Hutchinson’s provincial directory listed at least three blacksmith operating in town in 1864, for example. For the record, these blacksmiths were John Cochran, James Dennison, and Otho Eaton. Another business listing in this directory showed a blacksmith shop operating under the name Eaton & Dennison, but this might have been a duplication.
The 1864 Ambrose Church map of Kings County indicated that as well as the above smiths, one Joseph Gould operated a blacksmith shop in Kentville. Gould may not have been in Kentville the same period as Cochran, Dennison and Eaton. While the Church map is dated 1864, it was published much later and the period when Gould was in business may have been in the 1870s.
Around 1879, however, Kentville saw another blacksmith shop open near the retail section. According to Mabel Nichols in her Kentville history, T. W. Cox and John B. Rogers opened a blacksmith shop at the foot of Joe Bell (Gallows) Hill in 1879. This was the only mention of blacksmiths I could find in the Devil’s Half Acre but the name of T. W. Cox came up in research I did recently.
One may think it unusual blacksmith shops once were common on Kentville’s streets; you may also think such downtown shops are a thing of the past. However, not that long ago a blacksmith shop operated in town no more than a whisker away from the main business core. This takes us back to the T. W. Cox mentioned above. This likely is the Thomas Cox whose handmade axes are highly collectable today.
Around 1903 or 1904, T. W. Cox took on five apprentice blacksmiths at his Kentville shop. (At that time blacksmiths usually were required to apprentice for several years before being accepted as masters of the trade). One of the apprentices was John Fitch. Mr. Fitch apprenticed successfully and worked as a blacksmith with Cox until 1915; in that year he purchased the Cox shop and was on his own.
John Fitch operated his blacksmith shop in Kentville for at least 50 years and has the distinction of being the last blacksmith operating in the town. Fitch closed the shop in 1965 or thereabouts. One of his sons, Arthur, believes this is the correct year but he isn’t 100 percent positive. Fitch died in 1977 when he was 86 years old.
Fitch’s blacksmith shop was located on the south bank of the Cornwallis River, not far from where he apprenticed with Cox. The shop occupied the site of the current Kentville library, approximately where the parking lot is today. The shop was located under the basement of the Fitch home with the entrance facing northeast. Arthur Fitch told me the shop originally was at street level and the family lived over it, moving down when the shop went into the basement.
I remember the shop well, by the way. As a boy I visited it often. As I recall, I was always welcome. Fitch always had time to tell me about his ironwork and the tricks of the trade that came in handy when shoeing balky and sometimes vicious horses. Arthur told me he was a hard worker, going at it from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. He chewed tobacco all his life and he always swallowed the juice; which, he used to say, along with staying away from doctors and hospitals contributed to his long life.