Nova Scotia·Q&A

New sculpture in Kings County to honour 19th-century inventor Abraham Gesner

Gesner, who grew up and lived much of his life in the area north of Kentville, N.S., created kerosene, marking the birth of the petroleum industry.

Gesner invented kerosene, which started the petroleum industry

Award-winning Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy works on a clay bust of Abraham Gesner, the Nova Scotian man who invented kerosene. (Submitted by Ruth Abernethy)

Work is now underway to create a sprawling new bronze installation in Kings County that will honour an important 19th century inventor. 

Abraham Gesner was born in 1797 in Cornwallis Township, just north of Kentville, N.S.

He went on to become one of the first geologists and invented kerosene, which marked the birth of the petroleum industry. 

A two-plaque national memorial was built along Middle Dyke Road in the late 1960s to honour Gesner.

But Allen Eaves, a local philanthropist who was concerned about the state of the present memorial, has hired renowned Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy to create a new, expanded installation there. Eaves is contributing about $180,000 of the estimated $300,000 cost.

Abernethy spoke about Gesner and the sculpture she's creating in an interview with the CBC's Zak Markan. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Give me a brief primer on who Abraham Gesner was.

He was the most interesting man. His family came as Planters from New York State, I think. So they came in the late 1700s. It was twin brothers and one of the brothers … is father of Abraham Gesner.

His father-in-law said, "Listen, you're very clever. You should go to England and study to be a physician" — which he did. But when he was there, he fell in love with geology, at that point a brand-new science. People really didn't see the earth as a record of history as we now understand it.

He was the first geologist professionally working in the British Empire and he did geological surveys of New Brunswick, of PEI and of Nova Scotia.

And when was it that Abraham Gesner invented kerosene?

I think his workshop experiments were successful in the autumn of 1845.

His first public demonstration of the burning of kerosene in a burner that he had also invented was in Charlottetown because he had done the geological survey of PEI and his lectures were wildly popular. There would be 1,000 people show up to a lecture.

He was just the most animated, engaging fellow.

I understand that you're in southern Ontario, a bit of a ways from Nova Scotia, so how did this get on your radar?

My connection to Nova Scotia goes back quite a ways. My aunt moved down there in '51, I think, to complete nurse's training and remained there, married a fellow from Kentville from the Air Force. So one branch of the family has always been there.

So what are you planning to build at the memorial site?

We will keep those two plaques because they're handsome, they are real and they have their own story. So they will stay. But I wanted to bring in the idea that Gesner is a disruptor. We now embrace that word and understand what it means.

I've worked with the concept of a courtyard in the centre. I've got an inlaid steel meridian grid indicating the earth and the components sit around the perimeter of that circle. And then we have the series of bright supports that will hold text telling of Gesner's life in French and English.

And then there's Gesner standing at the centre break as a figure portrait as accurately as we can reproduce of the man based on this old photo that we have of him and dressed according to what he probably would have worn in the day.

When are you hoping to actually have all of the material together on site and actually installed to be shown to the public?

Well, with fingers crossed and a realistically-based optimism, we are hoping to dedicate the installation this Thanksgiving, which is Oct. 6 and 7.

With files from Zak Markan