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Who started the festival?

Ed Coleman History
Ed Coleman History

The origin of the Apple Blossom Festival

When he was interviewed several years ago about his involvement with the first Apple Blossom Festival, former Kentville mayor Garth Calkin recalled difficulty organizing the Grand Street parade.

“We had assembled early Saturday on the Sanatorium grounds and it was pandemonium at first,” Calkin remembered. “We had 50 floats with apple blossom themes, coopers making barrels, floats with Mi’kmaqs making baskets, school kids in dancing troupes, decorated cars and trucks and it was a problem getting everything sorted out. At the railway station, five bands waited to join the parade and we couldn’t be late.”

The date was Saturday, June 2, 1933. Eventually, parade chairman Calkin sorted out the participants and lined them up.  At 9:30 a.m., as per a notice advertised in The Advertiser that week, the parade departed the San grounds, wound down Cornwallis Street and crossed the Cornwallis River. At the railway station, the bands joined the procession and the parade went up Aberdeen to Main Street and then to Memorial Park. 

“When the parade reached Main Street, one band after another struck up,” Calkin remembered. “This, to me, the bugle fanfares, meant the first Apple Blossom Festival in Nova Scotia was officially underway.”

In reality, it was the first apple blossom festival in Canada. 

Instant success

The 1933 festival was an instant success. And while it soon became a Valley-wide celebration, it began in Kentville, its roots planted in a series of summer carnivals organized to celebrate the town’s anniversary. In 1826, the town formally changed its name from Horton Corner to Kentville. As the anniversary of the change approached in 1926, the town fathers decided it was an occasion to celebrate; the town’s Board of Trade organized a three-day carnival with a queen, parade with floats and bands, sporting events and giant street dance and variety show.

The popularity of this event encouraged civic leaders to organize another summer carnival in 1928. The theme of the second celebration was historical.   

At that time, thanks to a rapidly expanding apple industry, a bustling railroad and a fading depression, the Annapolis Valley was prospering. Boosted by the railway’s presence, apples had become the mainstay of the Valley’s economy; apple exports were up with records crops, the likes of which had never been seen before. When the Kentville Board of Trade met in 1932 to organize another town celebration, it was decided to use apple blossoms as the theme. The tour was maintained for the festival and railway stops at various points up and down the Valley were included.

Records show the Kentville Board of Trade, which included 12 members of the town’s merchant class, gathered at the Cornwallis Inn in early spring. The decision was made to proceed with a blossom festival the following year, hopefully to include other Valley towns, using the format set for the summer carnivals.

At the meeting, several objectives were for the festival. Foremost was publicizing the romantic idea of apple orchards in full bloom with hopes of luring tourists to the Valley. With the apple industry and railway supporting it financially, the board publicized the festival widely to attract lucrative markets across North America and in Europe.

First festival

After nearly a year of planning, the stage was set for opening the first Apple Blossom Festival. To cover costs, requests had gone out for government grants. The railway had agreed to put on special festival runs up and down the Valley. Schools and local retailers had been invited to participate and Valley towns were asked to enter princesses and floats.

The festival officially was underway at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 2, when Kentville Mayor G. W. Lyons addressed a rally at Memorial Park and declared the festival open. 

At the conclusion of the mayor’s address, a chorus of more than 1,000 Valley school children performed several songs accompanied by a 60-piece orchestra. At 4:30 p.m., a band concert, followed by orchard tours, took place. At the park that evening, a musical “apple pageant” was performed; the evening concluded with what was to become a standard feature of future blossom festivals, a grand apple blossom ball at the Cornwallis Inn.

Following the grand street parade on Saturday, two more band concerts and another orchard tour took place. Advertising for the parade noted that “Valley Queens and ladies-in-waiting” would participate in the parade, but no mention is made that coronation of a festival queen would take place. However, that afternoon on the grounds of the Dominion Experimental Station, Miss Mary Armour, Princess Middleton, was crowned Queen Annapolisa 1.

Event organizers

There’s some question about who was first to suggest an apple blossom theme for the Kentville festival. Harold Woodman, in his history of the blossom festival, suggests it could’ve been Frank J. Burns.

In his late years, Burns often spoke of the festival as if it was his idea and he was a founding father, playing a prominent role on the committee organising the festival.

As the general manager of Kentville Publishing (publishers of The Advertiser), Burns also played a key role in keeping the festival alive and flourishing. In his book, Woodman called Burns “Mr. Festival,” noting he served for 10 years as festival president and was honorary president until his death in 1977.  It was Burns who started the blossom festival magazine, a supplement that’s still published today.

The Advertiser’s publisher, Clifford L. Baker, also comes into consideration as the first to suggest a blossom festival theme. Letters published after the festival started claimed it was Baker’s idea. 

Woodman also suggested a third candidate for this honour: Kentville merchant Bob Palmeter, the man who created the famous Apple Blossom China pattern.

Hantsport history

It should also be noted for many years, right up to 1932, apple growers in Hantsport had organized a one-day celebration with an apple blossom theme. According to longtime Hantsport resident Ray Riley, the event, replete with a queen and a ball, was held in apple warehouses in the town.

The Hantsport organizer was B. C. Silver who, says Riley, “took it to Kentville when it got too big to handle here.” Silver played a prominent role in setting up musical programs when the festival opened in Kentville.

Reference has to be made to what was said regarding the festival in the Wolfville history, Mud Creek. The editor of the history, James Doyle Davison, notes that early in 1932, Wolfville’s newspaper, The Acadian, suggested an apple blossom festival for the entire Annapolis Valley. The editor of The Acadian took no credit for originating this idea, saying it was something proposed many times years before.

The bottom line is that the blossom festival remains one of the premier events in Nova Scotia and is still going strong. After more than 80 years of celebrating our apple heritage, and with countless town, villages and people involved in getting the first festival underway and keeping it going, the question of who started it all likely is moot.

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