KENTVILLE AS IT WAS IN 1900 (December 21/15)

“On the main line of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, Kentville is the county seat of Kings.  The small hamlet, which clustered round a ford on the Cornwallis River was originally called Horton Corner, and formed a convenient meeting and trading point for the scant population of the district.  Eventually it became a somewhat important station on the old military and post roads from Halifax to Annapolis and its name was changed to Kentville on the occasion of a visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Kent.

“Gradually the little village grew and prospered with the growth of the county, but its vigorous expansion really began with the opening of the railway.  It is the seat of the county municipal government, where all public business is transacted, has regular sittings of the Supreme Court and municipal courts, has a well equipped county academy, a commodious county exhibition building, and a handsome new post office building.  The court house, however, is old and inconvenient, but is expected to be replaced shortly by an edifice creditable to the county and the town.”

Edited some for brevity, this introduction to a report on Kentville is from the Canadian Trade Review, dated August 24, 1900.  Much more was to be said about the town in the report, all of it flattering except for the remark about the old, inconvenient courthouse (which was replaced the year the review came out).

Again edited for brevity, here’s an overview of Kentville as it was in 1900.

“Situation:  Kentville is delightfully situated at the confluence of the Kentville Brook ad the Cornwallis River.  The latter flows through the center of the town and being a tidal river, provides a natural sewer system.  The business quarter lies along a narrow strip of intervale south of the river, and the residential and suburban quarter cluster in the little valleys and along the sloping hillsides, or are boldly perched on the bluffs.

“Amenities:  The town is supplied with water from lakes some three-and-a-half miles distant.  It is lighted by electricity on the incandescent system, its streets and sidewalks are broad.  Five religious denominations minister to the spiritual needs of the community – the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist.  There are three newspapers published in the town, two weekly (The Advertiser and Western Chronicle) and one bi-weekly, The Wedge.  There are two public halls besides the halls of the Masonic, Oddfellows, Y.M.C.A and other private societies.  The people are genial, warm-hearted and hospital, and their general intelligence and culture are of a high order.

“Kentville is the headquarters in Canada of the Dominion Atlantic Railway and not only is the General Manager and staff located here, but also the locomotive and car construction and repair shops.  This naturally gives permanent employment to a large number of persons and has been one of the most important factors in the growth and prosperity of the town.

“There are two bank agencies, that of the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Union Bank of Halifax.  There is also a Dominion Savings Bank.  Under the energetic initiative of M. G. DeWolfe and G. E. Calkin, Kentville was among the first of the smaller town to organize a local board of trade.

“Until recent years, Kentville had been looked upon rather as a charming and attractive residential than as an industrial town.  Its commanding situation in the centre of a populous and productive country, and its unrivalled railway and other facilities, are now being more fully recognised, and have led to the establishment of various manufacturing industries.  Among them are the Nova Scotia Carriage Company, the Lloyd Manufacturing Company and the Cornwallis Valley Packing Company. The Kerr Vegetable Evaporating Company is another Kentville enterprise for preparation of a patent vegetable soup for use by the British Navy.  There are also lumbering, woodworking, stave and barrel factories, marble cutting and other industries in the town.

“Hotels and boarding houses. Kentville is exceptionally well supplied with hotels and other accommodations.  Special mention may be made of the Hotel Aberdeen, a spacious and elegant structure occupying an excellent open site near the railway station.  Two other hotels, Townsend’s and MacIntosh’s, are commodious and high class.  Special mention must also be made of Miss Webster’s Sanitarium near the centre of town.  This establishment, which is open year around, enjoys the benefit of competent medical advice and is becoming widely known.”

The review of Kentville closes with mention of various prominent buildings and residences.  Among the former is the Margeson block “with a commodious Opera House,” and among the latter the residence of H. H. Wickwire, MPP, on the former site of the Royal Oak Tavern.  Today, this house, saluted in 1900 as a “large and handsome residence with terraced and beautified grounds,” is the Wickwire House Bed and Breakfast.


As mentioned before in this column, one of the earliest historical books written about Nova Scotia railways was penned by William W. Clarke, a Kentville railway man who for 50 years worked on the trains.  Other more scholarly and detailed histories of the railway have been published since Clarke’s book came out circa 1925, but none of them have as many nitty-gritty tales of early railway days as his does.

I’ve often wondered what affect the railway’s arrival had on people here in the Valley.  Clarke’s history chronicles some of those reactions – his story for example, about a railway locomotive storming into Kentville for the first time.    In her History of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, Marguerite Woodworth also tells us what affect the railway’s arrival had on Valley residents, and on Wolfville people in particular.  Clarke’s is the more humorous tale (see below) but first, here’s Woodworth report on how Wolfville responded to the railway’s arrival.

On describing the arrival for the first time of railway locomotives, Woodworth writes that they “were as yet strange, unknown monsters to the Valley people as witnessed by the report of a Wolfville correspondent in November 1868 of the three Bristol engines, the Evangeline, Gabriel and Gaspereau.” Most likely the “Wolfville correspondent” was a reporter working for a Halifax newspaper since at the time the town had none.  Whatever the case, here are the correspondent’s observations as quoted by Woodworth:

“The railway whistle has been heard for the first time in our village; a railway engine has unquestionably made its appearance in our midst.  The first locomotive of the Windsor and Annapolis Railway has visited Wolfville, puffing and snorting after the usual manner of such monsters and causing a general excitement amongst those not familiar with such sights and sounds. The iron horse referred to, Joseph Howe, had come from Kentville where it had been performing service for the past months in railway construction.”

William Clarke writes about a similar reaction when a railway locomotive was first heard in Kentville.  “Am amusing incident is told concerning the appearance of the first engine of the D.A.R. which was landed at Elderkin Creek (on the eastern edge of Kentville).  A citizen hearing the shriek of the engine whistle was seized with fear and fell into the culvert near the jail, shrieking, ‘Oh Lord, have mercy!  I hear Gabriel’s horn’.”

Not quite in the same vein but humorous anyway is Clarke’s comment on the train’s reputation for being notoriously slow. This is an exaggeration, Clarke says in effect, but was it?  Clarke contradicts himself by relating the following train incident.

“A male passenger was moved to pity by the incessant wail of a baby and the frenzied attempt of the mother to console the child.  In confidence the mother told the sympathetic passenger that the child was hungry and she had forgotten to bring a supple of milk with her.  A few minutes later the train made a stop; the kind-hearted passenger alighted and vaulting a fence, proceeded to milk a cow grazing in a neighbouring pasture.  He returned triumphantly to the train, bearing a generous drink of milk for the child, the crew holding the train while he committed the humane act.”

LIFE IN KINGS COUNTY IN 1863 (November 9/15)

What did your great grandparent do when they wanted to post a letter, say 150 or so years ago, or if someone wanted to correspond with them by mail?

It would’ve been inconvenient in both cases, but certainly not impossible. Let’s look at the 1860s.   Say, for example, the year 1863, which is roughly 150 years go. At that time there were only six official post offices in Kings County with full time postmasters.  The six offices were located in the major towns and villages, much like they are today – in Kentville, Wolfville, Canning, Berwick, Aylesford and Lower Horton.

But this lack of post offices in great grandpappy’s day, which mostly was horse and buggy time, didn’t mean getting a letter out or receiving one was difficult.  Scattered throughout the county were 26 way offices, places along the way so to speak, where mail could be dropped off or picked up.  Where possible, the way offices were in community stores, but in isolated areas they usually were located in private dwellings.  Among the communities in 1864 with way offices, to give a few examples, were New Minas, Greenwich, Hall’s Harbour, Kingston, Lakeville, Port Williams and Sheffield Mills.

In 1863, Kings County was served by a stagecoach line (appropriately named King’s Stage Coaches) which daily ran from Windsor to Kentville and returned to Windsor the same day.  The same coach line ran to Annapolis three days a week, carrying mail on all its runs.  The railway line from Halifax into the Valley was nearing completion in 1863 and this would speed correspondence by mail and make the pokey old stage coach line obsolete.  Soon to be gone were the days when mail was carried by horseback and stage coach; which likely made everyone, especially our letter-writing great grandparents, modestly satisfied.

These are a few of the interesting facts about postal service in Kings County as it existed about 150 years go. The source for the postal trivia is a provincial directory published out of Halifax in 1863.

Here’s more historical trivia. The directory list of county residents indicates that at this time farming was the major occupation in Kings County.  Actually it was the occupation.  If you didn’t farm or you didn’t go to sea in your great grandpappy’s day, you only had a few other options.   However, farming, the gritty hands on work that had to be done to provide the basic staples of life, involved well over 80 percent, perhaps even as much as 90 percent of the population.

As noted, there were other occupations besides farming.  Some people made a living working at farm related trades – blacksmiths, tanners, farriers, harnessmakers and millers, for example.  A few people also made a living working as clerks, carpenters, merchants and teachers in this period and these occupations are mentioned in the list of county residents.

Among the people listed in Kings County in the 1863 directory some 200 served as Justices of the Peace, most of which likely were full time farmers.  There were nine coroners, and most interesting of all, only seven lawyers practising in Kings County in 1863 and six of these lived in Kentville.  The directory also listed every town, community and settlement in Nova Scotia and the total in Kings County at the time was 82.  One of them was the community of Hardscrabble in Lower Horton, which I have to admit I had never heard of before.

Some of the advertisements in the directory made the most interesting reading since they were indicative of the times.  For example, Nelson Hardenbrook was a “dealer in wool and wool skins” in Wolfville.  D. A. Munro & Co., also in Wolfville, manufactured sleighs and carriages, W. H. Harris of Canning advertised as a “merchant and shipowner,” and Charles Mullowney of Kentville let it be known that he was an importer of teas and tobacco.  Another Canning store offered “West India Goods,” and another store advised the public that it was a “sail loft” and stocked all the materials required for ship building.


Writing in the Wolfville history, Mud Creek, the editorial staff describes the town as being in a “growing period” in the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century.  In this time, they say, Wolfville was booming and could boast of “twenty streets, five churches, sixteen stores and hotels …. several boarding houses” and as was typical of the times, a couple of  taverns.

Wolfville continued to prosper as different kinds of retail stores and service firms moved into town around the turn of the century.  For a time the town was the headquarters for the W. & A.R. Railway.   But owing to a “lack of co-operation from owners of land” in Wolfville, reads the Mud Creek book, the railway moved it headquarters to Kentville.  Said town then prospered in turn, as Wolfville had earlier.  Thanks to the railway, Kentville  soon became the busier and more bustling of the two towns.

Before the railway arrived in Kings County, Wolfville was a larger and busier commercial centre than Kentville.  However, this changed when the railroad set up its headquarters in Kentville and built its repair shops, car construction sheds, roundhouses and freight sheds there as well.  The railroad’s arrival and especially the building of the Cornwallis Valley Railway from Kingsport to Kentville also diminished Wolfville’s role as a port.  Another blow was the removal of the law courts from Wolfville and relocating them in Kentville, solidifying the latter’s claim to be the capital of the county.

However, while it outshone Kentville and other county villages retail-wise at first, Wolfville eventually became more renowned as a university town rather than a commercial centre.  The Mud Creek editors acknowledge this in the Wolfville history, noting that its reputation as a university town was established early and this reputation spread well beyond the confines of the Annapolis Valley.

What’s interesting about Kentville and Wolfville is how various prominent residents pictured the towns in the early years of the 20th century.  Sketches published in a regional magazine in 1916 described Kentville as the “commercial metropolis of the Annapolis Valley” and Wolfville as a college town and a favourite residential centre.  The Kentville sketch was written by a leading Kentville retailer, George E. Calkin, the Wolfville sketch by the editor of The Acadian, B. O. Davison.

Oddly, Calkin and Davison both saw their towns and the surrounding countryside as tourist resorts.  Only Calkin stressed that his town was an industrial and commercial leader that boasted a nearby military camp, the Dominion Experimental Station, the first ever “Provincial Hospital for the cure of tuberculosis” (the N.S. Sanatorium) and, of course, the railway that spurred Kentville’s retail and housing boom.

B. O. Davison waxed on in the 1916 review about all the tourist attractions Wolfville offered, that it was a “centre of historic interest,” and most of all that it was the “best residential town in eastern Canada.”  The university and the town’s large retail section are mentioned in passing.


Chicory, wormwood, Slender Vetch, Caraway, Hops and Tansy were introduced here by the Acadians, write the editors of A Natural History of Kings County.  Most of these plants were used for medicinal purposes.

When the Planters arrived, like the Acadians they probably used wild plants to treat minor complaints.  It’s likely as well the Planters, and later the Loyalists, brought with them a variety of patent medicines, which in turn came from Great Britain and other European countries.

Originally, patent medicine referred to medications that were given government protection.  This is a vague term – government protection – but generally it meant that medicines originally produced to treat the ailments of Royalty were under patent; that is, exclusive rights to produce such medicines were granted to the proprietors of these products.

But while the name stuck, and there being no way to enforce patent rights in far off  North America, a wide array of patent medicines soon appeared in the colonies.  Many of those medicines came here with the colonists but more than a few were doctored up locally; and if you carefully scan some of the early newspapers published in Kings County – such as the Western Chronicle and the newspaper that followed it, The Advertiser, you’ll find that nearly every page carried an advertisement for these patent medicines

What a strange and exotic array of patent medicine were found in these newspapers – patent medicines that offered relief or outright cures for every ailment, serious and minor, known to man and domestic animals, including a few ailments we didn’t know existed until the advertisements told us about them.

The production and sale of patent medicines was a big and profitable business, by the way, even here in the Annapolis Valley.  Patent medicines were even produced locally at one time, in Kentville for example.  Burpee Robertson Bishop (1868-1957) operated a mercantile store in Kentville and made a reputation for himself as a historical researcher and writer.  He also dabbled in patent medicines, apparently creating and bottling them under his own name.  It’s possible also that one James Neary concocted and sold patent medicines in Kentville around the same time as Burpee Bishop.  There’s a tantalizing one line reference to Neary’s patent medicines in an old obituary I found at the Kings County Museum.

However, Burpee Bishop and James Neary were tiny operations compared to C. Gates, Son & Co. of Middleton.  A family operation, Gates was the king of all patent medicine producers and purveyors in this region from about 1843 until the early part of the 20th century.  Gates products (offered in their advertisements as invigorating syrups, blood purifiers, nerve ointments, liver and bowel pills, summer complaint relief, cures for lame back and sore eyes) were sold at one time throughout the Maritimes.

As well as being popular here in Kings County, Gates household remedies also received international acclaim.  In 1893, Gates sent a collection of their medicines to the Colonial Exhibition in London and were awarded a “Commemorative Medal” signifying the excellence of their products.  Earlier, in 1884, Gates received favourable notice when samples of their medicines were judged at the Antwerp Exhibition.

According to a story on Gates in a 1916 issue of the Busy East of Canada magazine, Gates patent medicines worked “wondrous cures,” as attested to by numerous written testimonials.  “Doctors were astonished at the effects of the remedies.” notes the Busy East, and more than one of them tried to buy the Gates recipes for use in their own practice.

Gates very first patent medicine, one said to work miraculous results on the sick, was concocted from ingredients found growing in the countryside, using a recipe given to the family by a stranger passing through the community of North Middleton.  One can wonder if there’s an Acadian connection.  Did the Gates family gather up and concoct their patent medicine from some of the medicinal plants brought here by the Acadians?  It’s possible.  Very possible.  The Busy East magazine articles tells us the passing stranger took one of the Gates family out into nearby fields to collect the plants used in the recipe.


In a column earlier this summer on old-time words such as wharfinger, wheelwright and draying, I mentioned flint glasses, peppercorn lease and an obscure and odd sounding occupation called the commissioner of sewers.

Several readers responded by telephone when I asked if anyone was familiar with these words and occupations, among them Louis Comeau and Kevin Wood; both are collectors of historical lore and artefacts and they were familiar with the words and terms mentioned in the column.

I received a letter as well.  Carol Dimock of Wolfville wrote to tell me she found references to several of the terms in an old dictionary compiled by Noah Webster, a dictionary that has been in her family for several generations.  Dimock found definitions for peppercorn lease and flint glasses in the dictionary; the latter was defined as the “purest and most beautiful kind of glass, distinguished by it containing oxygen of lead.” As mentioned, I found flint glass listed in the inventory of Henry Magee’s store, which he operated in Kentville starting in 1788, and it probably referred to a type of glassware.

Peppercorn lease is an interesting term since in on sense it refers to the leasing of land for a nominal sum and on the other hand is derogatory.  Noah Webster defined peppercorn lease as “something of inconsiderable value; as lands held at the rent of a peppercorn.”  In other words it is land you rent or lease by paying a tiny sum.  Peppercorn, in one sense, also refers to something insignificant and worthless and used in this way can be derogatory.

Now, on to commissioner of sewers.  First of all, the sewers referred in this term have nothing to do with the disposal or storage of human waste.  Rather, it refers to dykelands and the person in charge of maintaining, repairing and building them.  The “sewers” are the ditches used to drain water from dyked land.

From day one of their arrival here, the dykes were the lifeblood of the Planters.   Legislation providing for the appointment of commissioners of sewers was passed as early as 1760.  It was a position of great responsibility and of great prestige.  And a position of power as well since to carry out their responsibilities, commissioners were given the authority by the courts to impose levies on landowners.  Often the levies were paid in work, or as one historical reference says, “in work, wheat or butter.”


Horse Show parade, Webster St. Kentville, NS circa 1890-1910

The photograph shown here has a caption in the Hardy archives and it reads: “Horse Show parade, Webster St. Kentville, NS c1890-1910.”

At first glance it appears that a parade is definitely taking place on that long ago day along a wet, unpaved Webster Street in Kentville.  While some details are unclear in the old photograph, the parade obviously is led by dignitaries in top hats who are in a wagon to which a magnificent white horse is harnessed.  Just behind the wagon is a marching band, their brass instruments glinting in the sun.  More wagons with more white horses and people afoot are strung out behind the band; spectators are lined up on both sides of the street.

While it appears to be slightly out of focus in places, the A. L Hardy photograph reproduced here is a wonderful glimpse of Kentville in the early 1890s.   Similar photographs of 19th Kentville, all taken by its famous photographer A. L. Hardy, are found in the Kings County Museum’s website.  (Look in the Hardy archives on the website if you’re curious and would like to see more of his work).

Like the one reproduced in this column, the photographs in the Hardy archives give you a reasonable idea of what Kentville looked like before streets were paved and when horses were still the main source of transportation.  Note the hitching posts here and there along Webster Street in Kentville, hitching posts you’ll find in the same time period in Canning, Wolfville and other county villages.

The photograph shown here has a caption in the Hardy archives and it reads:  “Horse Show parade, Webster St. Kentville, NS c1890-1910.” However, two items narrow down the time period the photograph was taken.  The photograph probably wasn’t taken in 1890 or 1891. According to various writers and researchers, Amos Lawson Hardy arrived in Kentville to set up a studio in 1892 so the picture was taken after that. You can see hydro poles to the left in the photograph and Kentville didn’t have electricity until 1892, which again indicates the shot must have been taken after that.

Several early Kentville businesses can be indentified in the photograph. The most obvious, since the store’s name boldly stands out on its rooftop, is the firm of A. E. Calkin.  According to Mabel Nichols in the Kentville history, The Devil’s Half Acre, Arthur E. Calkin opened his store in 1881and operated it until 1921.  Calkin ran a men’s clothing and footwear store.  Two detailed photographs of the A. E. Calkin store, one showing the exterior, the other the exterior, can be found in Louis Comeau’s book, Historic Kentville.

Another business that can be identified is Ross’s Book Store.  Looking up the street, you can see the Ross store sign on the left.  When the photograph was taken, William J. Ross had been in operation in Kentville for at least a decade, opening according to Mabel Nichols in 1882.  Now, Nichols say Ross opened first on Main Street and seven years later moved to Webster Street.  This could mean that possibly, (just possibly if Nichols is right) that the circa 1890-1920 caption on the photograph is correct since the Ross store was operating on Webster Street in that period.

On the right looking up the street, just before the A. E. Calkin store, are buildings Louis Comeau identified for me.  The prominent, three storey store located immediately on the right was operated by a merchant identified as E. J. Bishop in Nichols book.  Today, we know this store, sans the upper storey, as R. W. Phinneys clothing store.

In the foreground on the left, just before Ross’s Book Store, is a business identified in Price’s map of Kentville simply as the Simpson Brothers building.  Beyond it, opposite A. E. Calkins, is the Scotia Block which was destroyed in a fire.  Scotia Block was built by one of Kentville’s most prominent citizens, George E. Calkin, who served as Kentville’s Postmaster from 1867 until 1876.    The office building of another prominent Kentville citizen and historian, Probate Court Judge E. J. Cogswell, can be seen in the distance, the small white building at the far end of Webster Street.


After I read a transcription of the speech Laurie Levy delivered on the grand opening of the hall in Black River – the subject of my recent column – I decided to see what the author of Place-Names and Places of Nova Scotia wrote about the community.

To my surprise, Black River isn’t profiled in the book, at least not under that name.  Yet a couple of Kings County communities are profiled that either don’t exist or were never officially recognised as communities. Etna and Vesuvius are two such communities that come to mind.  I think of them as ghost communities; while a few people may have heard of these so-called place names, they exist solely on paper.

How could this be? As they say, there’s a story here; and to understand why some “communities” exist in name only you have to go back a generation or two.

Let’s start first with a settlement several miles south of Wolfville called Greenfield.  It is still called Greenfield today, at least by senior residents of the area, but years ago it was decided there were too many communities by that name and supposedly it made postal deliveries difficult.  The late Anne Marie Belliveau, who was a noted Kentville philatelist, did considerable research on county post offices.  Ms. Belliveau found that because of the confusion between Greenfield in Kings County and Greenfield in Queens County something had to change.

That change, Belliveau said, was to use Etna as the postal address for mail originating in Greenfield, Kings County.  Belliveau found that this was the idea of a county councillor, Jehiel Davison, and this is supported by an article appearing in this paper in 1977.  And by the way, a postal way office was established in Greenfield in 1875 and it became a regular post office a year later.  Check out Charles Bruce Fergusson’s book, Place-Names and Places of Nova Scotia for some history on Greenfield but look for it under Etna.

Now on to that other ghost community I mentioned – Vesuvius.  This community is alive and flourishing today and we know it as Black River.  It was also Jehiel Davison who chose the name Vesuvius for the Black River post office, apparently because there was a Black River in Antigonish County and a Black River in Colchester County.

Charles Bruce Fergusson obviously overlooked the fact that Vesuvius was a postal address only.  Black River isn’t profiled in his book, in other words, but Vesuvius is.  However, Fergusson admits that an early name for Vesuvius was Black River.   Oddly, while he omits the community’s correct and accepted name in his profiles, Fergusson writes that Black River is an “early name which is still used in the mid 20th century.”

Fergusson wrote this in 1967 and like many people, I wonder why he used Etna and Vesuvius in place of the long established community names for Greenfield and Black River.


“Take a moment to go back in time …. imagine what it was like.

“Picture pristine Acadian forests as far as the eye could see, along the South Mountain range tucked in between lakes and rivers that for hundreds of years was the home of the Mi’kmaq.”

Retired history teacher Laurie Levy spoke these words in describing a time when the community of Black River was a wilderness, or as Mr. Levy put it, a hinterland.   The occasion was the official opening of the new community hall in Black River, a hall that sprang from the ashes when the former school that had been standing for well over a century burned to the ground.

In those early days, Levy said, the area that eventually became known as Black River was a place of “bitterly cold winters and beautiful summers and falls (that) would attract settlement movements …. on a seasonal basis.  Evidence of native Indian habitat (in Black River) has been found as recently as this summer with work on the hydro system.”

Much of Mr. Levy’s talk involved the history of the Black River school, a school that eventually became the community hall.  In passing, however, he told the tale of how Black River was settled by Europeans because of the stagecoach road.

“White settlement roots (in Black River) began …. as a result of the building of the stagecoach road from Halifax (to) Windsor to the captured French fort at Annapolis Royal, the then administrative capital of Nova Scotia.  This was all before Halifax became the official capital in 1749.

“It is said this route through Black River and along the south mountain spine was (made) to hide troop movement from the Acadian population on the Valley floor. Early land grants were distributed to soldiers, but after the exile of Acadian settlements from the Valley floor and coastal Nova Scotia in 1755, the population mushroomed with the influx of United Empire Loyalists.  The south mountain road to Annapolis would be largely abandoned in favour of the Valley floor.”

Black River eventually became a community with recognizable borders and was “based on the rich forest resources, survival farming and lake and river fishing, as evidenced by the long milling history, small farm clearings and large rock piles till recognizable on the lakes, rivers and fertile fields of Black River.”

By Confederation, Mr. Levy said, the population of Black River was large enough to warrant building a school on the site where the community hall stands.  “The foundation stones were laid in 1871.  During the summer, slate rock was hauled for the foundation, post and beam, hand-hued timber construction for the framing and clapboard siding imported from New Brunswick were used. By fall, the community was the proud owner of a new school and community gathering centre.  That was just four years after Confederation and the summer of the second provincial election in the history of Canada.”

Building the school was a community effort in 1877, Mr. Levy said, and the building would stand with only a few changes over the years until the fire in March of 2011.  It was also a community effort when the new hall was constructed.  The grand opening of the building was held on September 11 last year.


Louis Comeau dubs himself as an “amateur collector of Kentville memorabilia” in his email messages, but I can tell you he’s much more than that.  As the author of a splendid book of historical Kentville photographs and as a decades long collector of documents, artefacts and such, all pertaining to Kentville, Comeau rightly could call himself the town’s unofficial historian.

In other words, an “amateur collector” he definitely is not.  No one, and I emphasize absolutely no one, has amassed as much historical material on Kentville as Louis Comeau has. About a decade ago, for example, I interviewed Comeau for a newspaper column and he said then his database  listed about 5,000 historical artefacts he had collected, all of them relating to Kentville.  When I talked to him several years later the database had grown to include over 7,500 artefacts. Comeau is still adding to the database and his most recent estimate has it at just over 9,000 and counting.

Comeau began collecting historical artefacts and documents on Kentville after he and his brother inherited their father’s estate.  Dr. Lin Comeau, a dentist who practiced in Kentville from 1949 to 1975, was a well-known collector of Kings County artefacts and antiques.  “He had a wide range of interests when he collected,” Louis Comeau said in effect, “but he seemed to concentrate on the historical stuff.”

In 1955, Dr. Comeau purchased the A. A. Thompson house on Wickwire Hill.  “This is when my father began collecting in earnest,” Comeau said.  Dr. Comeau decided to “fill the house with appropriate furnishings to suit the age of the house (circa 1900).  Well, this really got out of hand when the entire house (a two and a half storey Queen Ann revival) and two adjacent two-storey carriage houses became filled with antiques.

“It became quite an eclectic collection indeed; everything from hatpin holders to a horse drawn surrey (a carriage with a fringe on top) to a complete 1920s general store.  Also included were thousands of old papers and photographs from Kentville and its various businesses.  My father collected enough items set up an old-time country store, a dental office and a cooperage on his property, all depicting life as it was in Kentville in the 19th century.  I eventually organised all these items into a museum in the carriage house.”

Comeau said he carried on the work his father started, deciding to specialize in artefacts, records and anything historical that pertained solely to Kentville.  After his father died in 1975, “I continued on collecting anything of interest and importance from the town and also started to catalogue the entire collection.”

The result of Comeau’s specializing on Kentville, of carrying on his father’s legacy, is unbelievable.  Walk into the basement of his home in north end Kentville and you enter a magnificent museum in miniature, all devoted to the history of the town.  In a way it’s like stepping back in time.  Comeau’s collection provides an extensive overview of the town’s history going back over 100 years.  The photographs alone are a provincial treasure but there’s much more than pictures in his collection. On a previous tour of his museum, for example, Comeau showed me a studio camera used by famed Valley photographer A. L. Hardy, who was based in Kentville from 1892 until 1935 and was the official photographer for the Dominion Atlantic Railway.

Many of Hardy’s prized Kentville photographs are in Comeau’s collection.  In addition to the Hardy prints, Comeau also has about 600 old photographs dating from 1878.  His collection also includes some 100 books and pamphlets, old calendars, mementoes from long gone Kentville stores and industries, old Kentville newspapers, and a mind boggling collection of Kentville oriented calendars, pins, badges, ledgers, signs, maps, posters, medals, watches and postcards.

Comeau concedes that despite the current size of his collection his work isn’t done; he’s still digging into Kentville’s history, attempting currently for example to pinpoint the location of houses, churches and stores that once stood in the town and have disappeared.  It’s an obsession in a way.  If a little piece of Kentville history is missing from his collection, Comeau says he won’t rest until he finds it and adds it to his database.

Surprisingly, he’s still uncovering historic tidbits on Kentville and adding them to his database.  “This work takes all of my free time,” he says.  “You have to be a detective to date some of the artefacts I’ve found and sometimes I feel like Sherlock Holmes.”

Louis Comeau

Louis Comeau has been dubbed the unofficial historian of the town of Kentville.  Comeau estimates he has about 9,000 historical articles on Kentville listed in his database.  (E. Coleman).