Annapolis Heritage Society | Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

The Gavaza family of Annapolis Royal

by Lois Jenkins – Genealogy Centre of the Annapolis Heritage Society

Antonio Gavaza’s tombstone in the Garrison Graveyard at Fort Anne reads “a native of Chava, Italy”, although the name could originally be Portuguese or Spanish. He was designated a “trader” of Annapolis Royal when he bought the Sinclair Inn property in 1818. Later that year he married Anne Starratt, a local girl nearly thirty years his junior; they had four children, all baptized at St. Luke’s Anglican Church. In 1842 the Sinclair Inn property (then known as the Provincial Hotel) was put up for sale at public auction as a result of an action brought against Antonio by Thomas Ritchie, Esq. for non-payment of a mortgage which he held on the property. Antonio’s son Thomas Antonio Gavaza, then of St. John, New Brunswick, was the highest bidder for the site. Antonio and his wife both died in 1848, Antonio at age 74, Anne at age 46.

Thomas Antonio Gavaza married Eliza Marshall in 1848. In 1851 he bought the property where the Sinclair Mews parking lot is today (he may have built the house that stood there). Thomas and Eliza had five children, Norman A., Thomas Millidge, James V., John M., and Ida C. By the 1860s, Thomas A. was a prominent businessman in the town. He had sold the Sinclair Inn property in 1858, and now had a general store and wharf on lower St. George Street where the playground is located. He dealt in the buying and selling of land, and was the town postmaster (from 1868 until his death). When his sons came of age they joined him in the business which became known as T. A. Gavaza & Sons. His daughter Ida was the first wife of George Hawksworth, a former mayor of Annapolis Royal. She owned the Clifton House at the turn of the century.

The family business appeared to have a solid foundation: their store was located in a prime location, just east of the railway wharf; it was the “Golden Age” of Annapolis Royal, the terminus of the railway from Halifax and the port of a thriving shipping trade. Business prospects couldn’t be brighter. But the family’s foundation was soon to crumble.

The family firm decided to expand its business, and in 1875 built a “handsome” 2 ½ storey dry goods store on their property below the wharf. An item in the local paper of the day describes “the splendid plate glass windows”, the counter and shelves of walnut, the five chandeliers containing over two dozen lamps. In July of that year the family offered an inducement to the town: they would erect a turret atop the building to house a town clock if the citizens would raise the money for the clock. The store opened for business at the end of December 1875. On July 25, 1876, Thomas A. Gavaza died at the age of 54. On March 4, 1877, a fire, which began in the rear of the Gavaza general store, destroyed it, the post office to one side and the Pickels & Mills store on the other. The “handsome” new store, although damaged, survived the ordeal; the intense heat cracked the “splendid plate glass windows”. Insurance covered some of the losses, but in October of 1877 the firm declared bankruptcy.

The brothers turned to other pursuits. Norman, the eldest, who never married, was listed as a “commercial agent” in the 1881 census. He died ten years later, at age 42. James, who married Emma Stevens, had left the firm in 1877, and moved some time later with his family to the Boston area. John, who married Ella Bonnett, was listed as a Deputy Sheriff in Annapolis in 1881. He was involved in the construction of the “missing link” of the railway between Annapolis Royal and Digby from 1889 to 1891, after which he and his family, too, moved to Boston where he worked for the Boston Street Railway Company. Thomas Millidge Gavaza, who also never married, managed the Clifton House for his sister for a short while, then worked for Charles Dargie & Son for some twenty years prior to his death in 1922. He was the last of the Gavaza family in the area, his sister Ida having died ten years previously.

The “handsome” new building below the wharf that had been the pride of T. A. Gavaza & Sons went through a number of renters and owners; it housed at various times the Salvation Army, a printing business, and a laundry. In 1911 Frank Pickels bought the building and had it moved to the location of the present Scotiabank, where it underwent alterations before housing the Bank of Nova Scotia which was moved there from Church Street. On March 16, 1920, it burned to the ground, with only the brick vault left intact.

In the late 1970s, the once elaborate Victorian-style Gavaza residence that stood above the Sinclair Inn was torn down to make space for a parking lot. Today their tombstones in the Garrison Graveyard at Fort Anne and in Woodlawn Cemetery are the only remaining tangible evidence of the Gavaza family’s presence in Annapolis Royal.