Comfort Me With Apples: Valley historian recounts tales of Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association

Wendy Elliott
Published on February 11, 2014
Berwick’s Julian Gwyn has written a history of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association. 
Wendy Elliott -

Historian Julian Gwyn, who has written a book on the history of the NSFGA, spoke at the Fruit Growers’ banquet about the early years of Nova Scotia’s apple growers.

Comfort Me with Apples: Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association, 1863-2013 looks at an association from its founding and includes many stories worth telling.

 “I knew none of them until two years ago, when I began to read their published annual reports to write their history,” Gwyn said.

In the 1860s, he said, farmers principally raised not fruit, but grade cattle for the butcher, oats and hay for their livestock and potatoes exported to the U.S. market.

“Their small orchards taken together then grew more than 200 varieties. Most varieties had been imported earlier from the American colonies and England, though some had developed in nurseries scattered from Starr’s Point to Windsor.”

Prior to the 1860s, Nova Scotia imported roughly as many barrels of apples as they exported, Gwyn pointed out.

“It was a small business. The markets in the Maritimes were quickly glutted. The scattered attempts to ship apples to England from Annapolis County were financial failures.”

Prospects improved when barrels of apples could be loaded onto rail cars to reach Halifax the same day. This encouraged new apple plantings in the 1860s and 1870s and growers aimed to send cooking varieties to the English market.

By 1910 in Nova Scotia, there were 40,000 acres of orchard, with some 2.5 million-apple trees, Gwyn noted. Seventy per cent of them were in Kings County.

The fruit growers’ annual banquets were ceremonial occasions. On at least three occasions the lieutenant governor attended as a patron. Premiers were occasionally on hand, though none before 1914 and none since John Hamm in 1999.

Theirs was a very male world. For many years, the association’s invited guests were invariably other men, including we noted scientists, businessmen or growers from other apple districts in North America. The range of topics they discussed at their annual meetings was vast.

Uniform marketing came to the fore with the emergence of co-operatives before the First World War. Gwyn said Robert Leslie is one of his heroes for running a central marketing system. After 1951, it ended leaving “growers ever after deeply divided, with the independents fearing a whiff of socialism that remains to this very day.”

Gwyn called apple production now a shadow of its former self: the total crop today is worth about $18 million; in 2013 dollars, one year’s crop from the 1930s was worth about $80 million.


Women as fruit growers

At an 1884 fruit growers’ quarterly meeting in Bridgetown, Andrew H. Johnson gave notice of motion for the next convention “to admit ladies to full membership” at the rate of 50 cents a year, half the rate for men. The motion was passed unanimously.

The first presentation by a woman at the convention occurred in 1894, when Olivia Johnson of Wolfville read her paper Women as Horticulturalists.

“May I live to see the day when the girls of Canada will fling the crazy patchwork over a pole in a corn field for the edification of the crows, while they study the germination of seed,” she stated.

In 1895 before an audience estimated at 800, Johnson said, “We are told that women cannot understand many things that men can, but fruit growing is not beyond our intellect”.

One of the few recorded women orchardists was Nellie Rooney who, after the death of her father in 1934, operated the family farm. She shipped her apples through the Port Williams Fruit Company.

A strong supporter of central marketing, she said, when interviewed in 1946: “Those barnacles on the apple industry, the independent shipper, cost the growers of this Valley plenty in the old days, but since the marketing board came into being, many orchardists have managed to pay off their mortgages… Under the present system we growers have a chance to control our destinies.”

It was 1928 before the first woman was elected president.

“Sadly for farmers in general and women in particular, Susan Chase, a 1921 graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College, did the unforgiveable: she married an Ontario man, a classmate, and left with her term of office only half completed.”

It was 2001 before another woman, Gail Parker, was elected president. She was followed by Mary Lou Power in 2010. Until the 1970s, few women spoke at NSFGA conventions, Gwyn said. The first female scientist to address a convention was Myrna Blenkhorn, a provincial horticulturalist: in 1979, she gave the annual Maggot Control Board report.


A professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, where he taught for more than 40 years, Gwyn self-published Comfort Me with Apples, but he did benefit from a fund the NSFGA started.

“There aren’t any grants,” he said for agricultural history. “That $5,000 made all the difference.”

Five hundred copies were printed and Gwyn noted that he really enjoyed the research and writing.

Gwyn’s research and publications have focused on Nova Scotia as a British colony, naval history, along with social and economic history.

Since moving to Berwick in 2004, he has focused principally on agriculture, although in 2010 he published four booklets about the New England Planters from 1760 to 1815.

Gwyn has also been working on a book about farming in Kings County up to the 1960s, much of which, he said, is already researched and drafted.