The History of the Apple Blossom Festival

Early colonists from Europe introduced the sweet scent of apple blossoms to the Annapolis Valley as they brought seeds, grains, fruits and vegetables to the new land. A plaque on the reconstructed gristmill in Lequille, Annapolis County, notes the site as the first “farm”. From the 1600’s on, production of apples was an industry with both the Planters and later the Loyalists planting orchards up and down the Valley. In peak years, nearly 3 million barrels of apples were harvested, valuable crops indeed!

The aroma of the blossoms in May and June, along with the natural beauty of the bloom, made the advent of spring even more of an occasion. Local boards of trade and community councils had talked of a spring carnival at blossom time but not until 1933 did talk turn into action.

In 1933, the first official Apple Blossom Festival was celebrated with Reg Caldwell as President. Other committee members included Mayor G. W. Lyons, H. O. Bishop, C. C. Eidt, G. R. Palmeter, R. W. Harris, M. A. Girvan, Dr. J. P. McGrath, T. P. Stent, G. L. Calkin and R. D. L. Bligh, all of Kentville. The committee had convinced the provincial government of a blossom Festival’s value as a tourist attraction, and the government provided some financial assistance.

Original objectives of the Festival were to make the Valley’s apple industry better known throughout North America and Europe; to publicize the scenic beauty of the area and the historic background of Longfellow’s Land of Evangeline; and to provide an opportunity to foster and develop local talent through participation in Festival events.

Little has changed from the successful format of the inaugural event. There was a contest involving selection of a blossom queen from among princesses representing several apple-growing communities. The queen was chosen by a panel of judges who based their decision on character, poise and personality of the young ladies. Mary Armour, of Middleton, was Queen Annapolisa I. Her coronation took place at the Dominion Experimental Station in Kentville, and on hand to cover the event was the Associated Screen News of Montreal, making newsreels to be shown in motion picture theatres throughout Canada and the United States.

Two years later, the Festival was incorporated by the provincial legislature and is to this day the only Festival that holds this status in the province.

By the time World War II began, the Festival had become a three-day event and by this time, too, it had become internationally renowned. During the war years, it was quite natural that the Festival would assume a new role, that of fundraising for war-related activities. More than $4,000 was donated to the Queen’s Fund, Red Cross and other such organizations.

A large press corps was present for these occasions, and a suite was set aside in the Cornwallis Inn as a working area for the newsmen. In 1945, James Fitzpatrick, whose newsreels were syndicated as Voice of the Globe, and sold around the world, was on hand with a crew of cameramen, scriptwriters and make-up artists for the filming of the coronation. For this occasion, the coronation took place in a Port Williams orchard.

With the declaration of peace, the Festival was expanded to a four-day event with Monday being added for a “royal tour” of participating communities, usually from Windsor to Digby. Instituted by the late C. W. Fairn, of Wolfville, the tour included a short ceremony at each stop. The local princess, as well as the queen, would be featured, and there would be a band on hand to play during the stop.

During one Festival, a motion picture was made of “an apple blossom wedding” with Miss Gladys Wade portraying the bride, and Philip Donat, the groom. Miss Wade was a member of a well-known Kentville family. Mr. Donat was a brother of British film star Robert Donat, and the father of Peter Donat, a movie and television actor. Mr. Donat, possessed of a fine baritone voice, was also a member of a male quartet, which entertained at many of the early Festivals.

For many years, an historical pageant formed part of the blossom festival program. Directed by Miss Daisy Foster of Halifax, local people made up the cast. Two of them, J. Lorimer Ilsley and George C. Nowlan, later became ministers of finance in the Canadian government. Mr. Nowlan played the lead role of Glooscap in one of these pageants.

Over the years, the Festival grew to include towns and communities from Windsor to Digby, with generations of families who have proudly hosted princesses, watched parades and been a part of nearly eight decades of celebration.

The Present

The Apple Blossom Festival annually opens Nova Scotia’s tourist season and continues to enjoy national and international recognition. In 1988 and 1991, the American Bus Association selected it as one of the Top 100 tourist events in North America. In 2001, Canada Post named the Festival as one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Canada and simultaneously released the Apple Blossom Festival Stamp in 2001 for the 69th Festival. In 2002, the Royal Canadian Mint presented the Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival – the 2002 50-Cent Sterling Silver Coin.

For the first 30 or more years, Fred Hockey, head of the plant pathology division of the Kentville Experimental Station, named the dates of Festivals, working on a ‘best guess’ for perfect blossoms. For scheduling purposes, dates for the Festival are now set five years in advance. The last Wednesday in May is the Official First Day of Festival each year.

The Apple Blossom Festival has grown to embrace the many communities that make up the Annapolis Valley. Opening Night is one event that moves from community to community and is an opportunity to honor the contributions and dedication of the many, many Festival volunteers, while highlighting that community. The reigning Leadership candidate and new Leadership candidates are special guests at a formal tea held in a Valley community on the Friday afternoon. It is there that each candidate has the chance to speak publicly as an important part of the leadership competition procedure.

The Sunday gala event is at Acadia University Hall in Wolfville. Many of the Leadership candidates are studying at post-secondary schools and this financial contribution is most welcome. The honour of the new Leadership Candidate goes each year to a local or visiting dignitary or special guest of the Festival, assisted by the retiring candidate.

Not all the crowds are at the Coronation as thousands of people are entertained by music, humor and many family activities in the towns of the Annapolis valley. This event changes slightly from year to year, reflecting the current entertainment trends. One of the most spectacular events for many residents and guests is the fireworks show that wrap up Friday evening; a truly spectacular show that has the crowds coming back each year.

From the very beginning, children have been part of the Festivals. Prior to the war, school choirs and bands from all over the province performed. Present-day Festivals feature children in what well may be Canada’s largest Children’s Parade on the Saturday morning of Festival. It is so long is nearly meets itself as the children parade through the Festival birth-town of Kentville.

The Grand Street parade on Saturday afternoon is in Kentville and is truly one of the Festival’s premier events as thousands line the streets in all sorts of weather to be a part of this celebration. Entries for the Grand Street Parade assemble in New Minas and at Kentville Agricultural Centre and proceed to Kentville Memorial Park. The hundreds of entries that make up one of Canada’s largest street parades include bands, marching units, equestrian entries; Leadership Candidate floats from participating communities, and floats representing business firms, private and not-for-profit organizations.

The time after the parade also gives an opportunity for visitors to travel the roads of the Valley, enjoying the display of blossoms in apple orchards. The Leadership Candidates spend much of the weekend visiting local nursing homes, schools and other local stops, enjoying the conversations and connections, learning much about the Valley and the people who call it home.

The Valley tour is held on the Monday after Festival weekend as the Leadership Candidates and many of the Apple Blossom Festival Board members make their way to nursing homes, schools and other community venues in a daylong marathon of visiting. The local leadership candidate is given an opportunity to “show off” her home community. Most representatives find this stop an ideal opportunity to express her appreciation to the residents for selecting her to represent them and to the committees who work so hard to support her. The Festival concludes at the end of the Valley-wide tour.

Over the years, Festival candidates have acted as goodwill ambassadors for the Valley and the province, at functions such as the Imperial Fruit Show at Cardiff, Wales, which Queen Annapolisa III Margaret Messenger attended in 1935. Great Britain reciprocated the following year when Florence Small of London represented the Farmers’ Union at the Apple Blossom Festival. The 1937 queen, Babs Harris, Wolfville, was guest of honour at the Shenandoah Valley Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia. Enroute, she made public appearances in New York and Washington. Janet Kinsman, Queen Annapolisa XXVII, represented the Valley on a New England tour, as did Queen Annapolisa XXX Carol Kerr, in 1962.

The Valley always anticipates fair weather for its Festival. No parade is or has ever been cancelled or postponed because of inclement weather, nor have many other outdoor events.

There have been many changes in apple production since the first Festival in 1933. Old orchards have made way for newer varieties of apple trees. Most trees now are smaller than the traditional umbrella-shaped trees, but there are more to the acre and more fruit to the tree. The Festival continues to be financially supported by the three levels of government, the Booster Club formed by the sixteen towns and communities, the Patrons of the business community and by individuals who see the value of celebrating a springtime spectacle that continues to win the hearts of all who participate. Of course the largest group of supporters are the faithful crowds that line streets, attend events and generally give Festival the spirit it needs to succeed.

The spectacle and the scent of fruit trees in bloom never changes, luring visitors from near and far. Apple blossom time signals the end of another winter, and offers the promise of a new growing season.

Come join in the celebration, be a part of the Festival family!