SOMERSET, N.S. —
Beverly Keddy has fond memories of admiring the old Welsford Fruit Company warehouse in Somerset as a child.
“I lived next door and saw it every day, in all seasons. As a child, I thought it was the grandest barn I had ever seen,” she said, reflecting on early days spent riding her bike on the neighbouring railway tracks, watching farm animals, and playing by a nearby brook.
The Berwick resident recalls the wooden warehouse being white back in the 1960s or so, around the same time that she used to admire the red brick silos.
“I’ve been in love with old barns ever since.”
Like Keddy, transportation historian Dan Conlin used to view the local landmark through the lens of childlike wonder.
“This one was a bit of a special place for me,” he said.
Conlin grew up in Welsford, and still has family in the area.
“I remember bicycling and walking by this warehouse lots of times and, when I was really young, I wondered what it was.”
He’d eventually unearth answers to these lingering questions from his youth as a professional historian with keen interests in ships and trains.
“It’s not just another barn,” said Conlin, who now works for the Halifax-based Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
“It was once part of a huge international network of railway transportation and apple growers that made Nova Scotia a major world supplier of apples.”
‘A sad loss’
The former Welsford Fruit Company warehouse was reduced to rubble by a fully involved fire that was reported just before 1 a.m. on March 16. Fire departments from Nictaux to Wolfville were dispatched, with many Annapolis Valley firefighters facing frigid temperatures cold enough to cause some equipment freezes at the scene along Pleasant Valley Road.
Keddy met up with some local farmers checking out the aftermath of the fire on March 17. They took comfort in the fact that no humans or animals were harmed, but the loss of the well-known warehouse weighed heavily on the group.
The fire brought hopes that the expansive building would eventually be restored to an abrupt end.
“It’s a sad loss,” said Conlin.
The building’s origin beckons back to the age of rail in general, and Dominion Atlantic Railway’s expanding apple harvesting network in the Annapolis Valley in particular.
“It was built shortly after the North Mountain Branch line was built along the base of the North Mountain, which was in 1914,” said Conlin.
There has been no word yet on the cause of the fire.
Once upon a time
Conlin believes that the warehouse on Pleasant Valley Road, near the border of Somerset and Welsford, was constructed between 1915 and 1920.
“These apple warehouses were really critical to the development of the industry in the Valley. They turned apples from kind of a small seasonal sideline to a major international export,” said Conlin.
“ …It was these structures that really made the Valley an apple exporting powerhouse in their day,” he said.
The cooperative warehouse was the result of a group of local farmers pooling their resources to create new opportunities for transporting, storing and marketing apples in every season.
“That makes it kind of important because there were a few big companies and wealthy people who would buy apples from farmers, and farmers always felt that they were being cheated by the big guys,” said Conlin.
The buildings would gradually be repurposed after the Second World War severely diminished exporting opportunities feeding into the apple industry’s growth closer to home.
“The apple industry in the Valley went through a real crisis afterward and warehouses like this provided an important transition phase where they became barns and henhouses,” said Conlin.
Repurposed for farming
Earle Fuller of Berwick owned the old Welsford Fruit Company warehouse property from 1950 until a couple of years ago.
“I heard the siren ring the night before last at midnight,” he said in an interview the day after the fire.
A friend dropping in on Fuller after supper later that same day helped him connect the dots.
“That’s how I found out,” he said.
He used the warehouse site for farming purposes while he had laying hens, cattle and pigs. Dormers were added to the second floor of the building for the hens.
He said a woman approached him a few years ago to ask if her daughter could be married beside the old warehouse, and they fixed the property up to host a ceremony there.
“There were warehouses in pretty near every community there at one time, like Grafton and Somerset and Welsford and Weston – all right down the line,” he said.
There used to be 150 apple warehouses from Windsor to Clare, Conlin said.
“They were really unique structures and it’s sad that we’re losing them one by one.”
At last count, Conlin said only 55 remained but three more were lost within the last year – one in Windsor due to demolition and another Kings County warehouse lost in a fire in Hillaton.
“You know you’re going to lose a few of these every few years, but the pace of loss is accelerating.”
Conlin visited the former Welsford Fruit Company warehouse with Fuller’s permission in recent years and found that the packing room was still intact, stencils from apple barrels dangled from the wooden walls and carpentry technics from days gone by were on full display.
“It’s a little concerning that these are really becoming vanishing landmarks,” he said.