Where the past, present, and future meet; a salute for Betty

by Mary Ducharme  (February 2022)

“Hemmingford-strong” women have often provided leadership for change. One of them was Betty Margaret McKay MacKenzie, born August 9, 1924. A tiny but tenacious woman, she was a gleaner of Hemmingford’s past. It started with fifteen years of researching her own family genealogy, resulting in a 410-page book, Times Remembered, on the McKay, Farr and Brownlee families. However, by 1996 her research had evolved into a larger saga spanning two centuries: how Hemmingford came to be. From the beginning Betty did not regard the ever-growing collection as a private domain, but as the property of the people of Hemmingford.

In her early career, Betty worked for CIL Munitions in Montreal. In 1948, she married a former soldier, George MacKenzie, who served in the 17th Duke of York Royal Canadian Hussars during World War II.

They built their home in St. Lambert where they raised their children. George was Betty’s co-patriot working side by side with her as they trekked to Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal, as well as other archives and libraries across Canada, in the United States, and England. Each trip resulted in reams of copies of archival material– until her available space at home was overwhelmed.

Adding to the collection, first housed in the basement of the Town Hall, were local donations of old documents, photos, albums, and the remainder of the library once owned by Julius Scriver. She also corresponded with and spoke to hundreds of people through the years about their Hemmingford connections.

Jacquie Stoneberger and Sylvie Dubuc joined with Betty as the founding officers of the Archives. One of their goals was to obtain charitable status which opened doors to funding through to the present.

Betty plunged into the project of another book to be out in time to showcase the history of the community for the 1999 Bicentennial. In addition to the research and writing of Betty, the new book contained articles written by sixty contributors who enjoyed the task of writing about slices of Hemmingford life they personally experienced, or knew from family folk history.

To help finance the book titled Two Hundred Years of Hope and Challenge 1799- 1999, one of the ventures was the selling of artwork T-shirts that Jacquie designed. All the pieces of publishing this 605-page book fell into place: it was to be a fresh introduction to the story of Hemmingford as told from the perspectives of its fresh introduction to the story of Hemmingford as told from the perspectives of its own residents. Kathy Feig did the typesetting and page design and her husband, Robert Pitt Taylor edited the material; Susan Fisch volunteered as a proofreader. Artist Susan Heller created illustrations. George, of an artistic bent, also designed pages, using his experience from working for The Gazette Canadian Printing Company. A committee of eight tackled a complete translation into French in a separate volume.

Betty’s determination was infectious as she and her volunteers labored to learn the details of managing archival collections. Midstream came a twist in the methodology: the computer age. This demanded new methods of cataloguing and the leap from photocopying to digitizing was not an easy one for those in Betty’s generation. Nonetheless, she found volunteers with the required skills.

When the Archives outgrew both the Town Hall, and then the library room at Hemmingford Elementary School, community and government both came through with financial support. Now the former church hall, gifted by St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Congregation, is a beautifully renovated and permanent Archives, and its collections of local history are where they should be: at home in their community of origin.

In 2022 volunteers carry on Betty’s legacy where the past, present, and the future meet. There was never pay for this work. But a reward remains: the fascinating unfolding of history in a small border town and village, from the beginning to the present generation.

Those who journeyed with Betty and those who followed know that without her groundwork, it is doubtful that the Archives would now exist.

After George died in 2013, Betty, was herself becoming frail and she moved to Vancouver to be with her daughter Lynn. Betty passed peacefully on January 2, 2022 in her 98th year at a long-term care home in Maple Ridge B.C. Her burial and a graveside ceremony will be in the spring at the Hemmingford Protestant Cemetery, where George and her son Brent are also buried. She will be the 4th generation to be buried in this cemetery