Kentville has the highest year-round population of any residential centre in the Annapolis Valley. The population has been steadily increasing over the years, and recent projections are that future development of the town will see greater increases than ever before.
Kentville is the shire town of Kings County, Nova Scotia. It is one of the most beautiful and richest agricultural districts in North America, in the heart of Nova Scotia’s great apple industry. It is 107 kilometres from Halifax, 230 kilometres from Yarmouth and 193 kilometres from Saint John, New Brunswick by boat. Being only 8 kilometres from the headwaters of the Minas Basin, this was the location chosen in 1755 from which the British transports sailed, while deporting those patriotic sons and daughters of France, from the land of their adoption. This touching and pathetic story, so well portrayed by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his “Evangeline,” will never cease to be read in prose and verse.
The town owes its location to the fordable condition of the Cornwallis River utilized here by the earliest inhabitants the indigenous Mi’kmaq. The river was first known as the Grand Habitant by the Acadians. Near where the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) station was later built, a large sand hill stretched to the banks of the Cornwallis River. The mound caused the banks to narrow and made a convenient place for fording the stream at low tide. A few settlers made their home near the ford. When later in 1870’s the time came to build a bridge, that same narrowness seemed a favourable spot for the location of the structure.
This area developed into one of the most prosperous within the Province under the skilful hands of the French who cultivated lands using a technique of dyking (including aboiteaus) to reclaim salt marshes from the sea and turn them into fertile farmlands. Later after the Expulsion of the Acadian population in 1755 the land was settled by the New England Planters — some 8,000 came to Nova Scotia between 1760 and 1768.
On September 16th, 1766, the first deed of land was granted, by Jonathan Darrow, to James Fillis and Joseph Pearce. It is thought that the house which Fillis erected (diagonally in back of the property on the corner of Main and Cornwallis Street and across from the Cornwallis Inn) was the first permanent dwelling, in what is now the centre of town.
In 1785 Henry Magee, a Loyalist, received a grant of land from the Crown, which was located in the Aylesford Township near Auburn. The land was in the shire town of Kings County, and here he lived during the years 1788-1806. It was here, on the banks of the Mill Brook, where he built his home on Main Street, his grist mill and his store. By 1800, there were 14 houses and Magee’s store in the village. It was called Horton Corner, as it was in the northwest corner of Horton Township.
In Dr. Silas Rand’s book, “The History of the Indians of Nova Scotia” the original Mi’kmaq name for this location was “Obsitquetchk” , meaning “the fording place.” The area was also known as “Penoock”, meaning “Pineo’s Place” and was believed to have referred to Peter Pineo, a New England Planter, who came to the Township of Cornwallis in 1764.
In 1794, the Duke of Kent commanded the military forces in Nova Scotia. When His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, father to Queen Victoria, visited the hamlet, while journeying on horse back from Halifax to Annapolis, he stopped overnight at the “Royal Oak Inn.” In 1826, Horton corner was renamed “Kentville” in his honour.
Early historians cite the County’s African Nova Scotian population as descending from those individuals who arrived with the New England Planters either as servants or slaves. Probate records give instances of African Nova Scotians being given grants of freedom in 1790 and 1800. By 1800 the institution of slavery was no longer practised after the Act of Abolition was passed. The local population was supplemented by later migrations following the American Revolution when some 3,500 people of African descent arrived in the province between 1783-1784. Records show that 38 individuals came to Horton and Cornwallis Township (New England Planter designations for what would become Kings County), and 69 settled at Partridge Island (later Parrsboro), which was once part of Kings County until 1840. Following the War of 1812, another 2,000 people of African descent who had supported the British emigrated to the Maritimes. Known as the “Refugee Blacks” some of this group may have also added to the local population of Horton and Cornwallis. The Community of Gibson Woods was established about 1804 and took its names from one of the founding families. A Baptist Church was established in 1902. The former school now houses the community centre.
In 1829, a courthouse and a jail was established in the town, and many years later, Kentville was incorporated on December 7, 1886. These incorporation proceedings stemmed from a public meeting of the rate payers, which was held in 1885 when a committee was appointed to consider the matter of fire protection and water supply. This committee included five men all of whom served in the office of Mayor — namely, Judge J. P. Chipman, Brenton Dodge, William H. Yould, R. S. Masters and J. W. Ryan. Others serving on the committee were Arthur Calkin, John W. Margeson, Kenneth Sutherland, T. P. Calkin, George W. Woodworth and Colonel L. DeV. Chipman. Kentville also has the distinction of electing the first female Mayor in the Maritimes, and the first female member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly — Gladys M. Porter MLA, M.B.E., D.C.L. (1893-1967).
In the early days there were two main streets in Kentville – Main (also known as the Old Military Road) and Cornwallis Street. These roads had been made by the Acadians. The two streets that now complete “the square” (Webster Street and Church Street — now called Aberdeen Street,) were laid out by Dr. William Bennett Webster. Dr. Webster was probably the most enterprising and farseeing man in the village in its early history. Although he extended Church Street over the steep sandy bank, he received very little praise and much ridicule, for his effort.
Later, in 1914, the first concrete sidewalks were laid and soon after, in 1918, paving of the roads took place. This construction was done for $50,000; later in 1926, the new streets were named and the buildings numbered.
Prior to the end of the Second World War in 1945 much of Kentville’s economic power came from it being the headquarters for the Dominion Atlantic Railway and a hub for local tourism (establishment of the CP Hotel the Cornwallis Inn), the home of the Kentville Research Station, and within such close proximity to the Provincial Sanatorium and Camp Aldershot. The Apple Blossom Festival was born in Kentville in 1933, and the Grand Street Parade is still held here each spring.
After the war major economic changes such as the growth of highway travel and decline of the railway would impact the Town. Today Kentville has been reborn as the business centre of the County and remains the professional centre for the Annapolis Valley. The rest, they say, is history!
(Revised November 2014)
*”Some History of the Town of Kentville”, 2000, from the archives of the Kings County Museum.
Other Sources for Town History Include:
Comeau, Louis V., “Images of our Past; Historic Kentville”, Halifax, Nimbus Press, 2003.
Nichols, Mabel G., “The Devil’s Half-Acre”, Kentville, Town of Kentville, 1986.
“Kentville”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentville, November 2013.
Kings County Museum (www.okcm.ca)