GOLD MEDAL WINNING COMPANY ORIGINATED IN CANNING (August 20/19)

As reported in the Federal Sessional Papers, dated March 25, 1886, the Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company of Canning displayed its products at the Canadian exhibit in the International Exhibition, Antwerp, Belgium. In the papers, a letter from Charles Tupper to the Hon. Secretary of State, Ottawa, presented the results of Canada’s participation in the exhibition, noting that the Kerr Company received honorable mention.

In the February 6, 1891, issue of the Canadian Manufacturer Magazine reported that according to the Kentville NS Star, the Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company “have received an order from the British admiralty office for the supply of nearly 10,000 pounds of evaporated vegetables for the British navy.” Kerr, said the magazine also are “receiving large orders from the United States and Upper Canada.”

That same year, the Kerr Company, again showing its evaporated vegetable line, represented Canada at the 1891 International Exhibition in Kingston, Jamaica. As reported in the Federal Sessional Papers, Kerr, now located in Kentville, received a gold medal for its products.

A Kings County firm, operating first in Canning and then in Kentville, selling its products on the international market – and at the same time receiving international recognition? This may be surprising since there’s little evidence today, other than mentions in a few obscure journals, that the Kerr Company ever existed.

Who or what was the Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company? Its name explains what it was producing, but what’s the story behind the Company? Why is there so little evidence that a business of its caliber once successfully operated on a grand scale in Kings County?

I have no answers to these questions; all I can tell you is what I discovered about Kerr in old newspapers, old magazines and in federal government records… and it wasn’t much.

For starters, I first came across mention of the Company, a few lines only, in the August 24, 1900, issue of The Canadian Trade Review. The Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company is a Kentville enterprise “for preparation of a patent vegetable soup for use by the British Navy,” the review reported.

The Kerr Company opened in Canning in 1884, employing 30 people according to a reference in Carman Miller’s biography of Sir Frederick Borden. While it was still operating in Canning in 1890, several sources indicate that by 1891 Kerr was on the way to Kentville: For example, the Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company, Kentville NS, is applying for incorporation with $20,000 capital, reported the Canadian Journal of Commerce on May 2, 1890.

A journal circulated in the Maritimes, The Critic, reported in its Halifax issue on November 27, 1891, that the Kerr Company recently held it annual meeting in Kentville. “Notwithstanding the heavy expenditure attending the preliminary year of business (in Kentville) a margin of profit was shown and general satisfaction prevailed,” The Critic noted. “The former directors, B. Webster, T. P. Calkin, S. S. Strong, C. E. Borden and James Stewart were re-elected.”

It’s my guess that Kerr likely relocated to Kentville within a couple of years of attending the Antwerp Exhibition in 1885. I base this on an advertisement published in an American trade journal in 1885 in which the company calls itself the S. G. Kerr & Sons, Manufacturer, of Canning. The journal was circulated solely to grocery owners and industry buyers in Canada and the United States (additional proof that the company was doing business internationally).

Kentville historian Louis Comeau provides more proof that Kerr attempted to sell its products outside of Canada. In Comeau’s files is a letter from the German government, dated April 11, 1904; in effect, the letter turns down Kerr’s offer to supply their products to the Germany military. Kerr’s offer to supply evaporated vegetables to Canadian troops going to South Africa (the Boer War) was also rejected. The latter letter (dated October 20, 1899) has Kerr located in Kentville (on Webster Street according to Comeau) as does the letter from the German government.

I’ve been unable to determine what became of Kerr, or even how long the firm operated out of Kentville; it appears to have been successful for more than a decade and some prominent Kentville businessmen, Websters and Calkins, were among its directors. It’s even possible the Company stayed in Canning, operating as S. G. Kerr & Sons and opened a branch Kentville, operating as the Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company.

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