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Archives Hemmingford teems with local history

Keith Scott

Hemmingford, Que., a village of about 800 people, boasts a historical archive fit for a regional capital. Archives Hemmingford, established in 1993 and recently moved to a beautifully renovated church hall on Champlain Ave. (Route 202), serves as a repository for the living history of Hemmingford and the surrounding area.
The volunteer-run facility houses documents and items dating back to 1793, when land grants in the region were first allocated to settlers, and it welcomes new donations of any date. The Archives Hemmingford mission, says board secretary Myrna Paquette, is “to collect, preserve, and organize … items of historic interest, to be owned not by individuals but by the community at large and protected by the Archives.”
Anyone curious about the history of the region can come and search, with the help of a welcoming and knowledgeable team of archivists, the thousands of records that Archives Hemmingford possesses. These include family histories, birth and death records, church and cemetery records, original deeds, land grant records, maps, photos, newspaper and magazine collections, military documents (some dating to the War of 1812) and more.

A brief history of the history

Gérard Laberge, another board member at Archives Hemmingford, says that although other historical archival societies exist in the area, none has as ample an organizational structure.
When asked why such a small town boasts such a large and well-organized historical archive, both Paquette and Laberge were reticent to accept much credit, instead passing it on to the community at large and to Archives Hemmingford’s original founder, Betty McKay MacKenzie.
MacKenzie began collecting histories of the Brownlee, Farr, and McKay families in the 1980s. After amassing many documents and publishing a detailed family history going back to the families’ roots in Scotland and England, MacKenzie established charitable status for Archives Hemmingford in 1993.
“Mackenzie and her husband put a great deal of effort into starting the collection we have today,” Paquette said. “She was followed by other dedicated people interested in preserving local history. A lot of the furnishings were donated through efforts of members of the community.”

 

PHOTO Courtesy of Archives Hemmingford<br >Archives Hemmingford got its start in 1993 and has been housed since 2017 in this renovated church hall

 

Over the next two decades, volunteers moved the collection from MacKenzie’s basement to Hemmingford Town Hall, and then to Hemmingford Elementary School.
“We grew so much that most of the board members were providing storage space in their homes,” Paquette said. It became apparent that a space specifically devoted to the archive was necessary.
The problem was obvious: space costs money. “We did a lot of digging for grant money,” board member Gary Bickes said, adding that a significant portion of the money came from generous locals.
After months of grant writing and coordinating with heritage fund representatives, Archives Hemmingford received federal, provincial, and municipal grants and local donations, enabling it to establish the physical, digital, and organizational infrastructure required for such a project.
“We were able to renovate the building next to the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church that had been graciously donated with the assistance of their members headed by Sally Kyle and Darby Somerville,” Paquette said. Archives Hemmingford moved into this building in 2017.

Who’s who in Hemmingford history?

“We take everything,” Paquette said when asked if documents had to be of a certain age to be considered “historical,” noting that newer material inevitably becomes history in the future.
Although Archives Hemmingford has focused somewhat more on anglophone history, French history still plays a major role. Histories of the Fortin, Lacasse, and Perrier families, for example, are no less important to local history as those of the Scriver or Fisher families.
Paquette explains that, due to MacKenzie’s original focus on her own English and Scottish heritage and to the fact that Hemmingford Township was originally settled largely by immigrants from English-speaking countries, many of the records relate to the area’s anglophone history.
However, “During the past 10 years,” she explained, “we have increased our records related to French-speaking and other ethnic groups. Many French-speaking families have become actively involved in providing us with their family information.”
German and Dutch settlers of the “European Village” section of Hemmingford Township also turn up in Archives Hemmingford. Overall, the collection boasts historical documents on more than a thousand families from the area.
Board members also pointed out that, since Hemmingford Township originally included the towns of Franklin, Havelock, and St-Bernard-de-Lacolle and had the only train station for miles, it became the regional hub it remains today despite its small size. This is reflected in the town’s archival records. “Because of that,” board member Michael Jordan said, “people doing research in those communities might find information in our archives.”
Archives Hemmingford’s records are fully searchable and can be linked to global genealogies through its subscription to Ancestry Library Edition, a computer program that tracks family histories worldwide.
“During the past two years alone,” Paquette said, “we have had many visitors from as far away as Australia, all over the United States and Canada.”

The Rufus Fisher Family Orchestra and Quebec anglophone musical heritage

In addition to storing historical records and providing services to researchers, Archives Hemmingford also promotes local history by publishing books and holding public events.
Its popular Fiddler’s Fancy concert, an annual tradition, will take place in April. In May, an exhibit will honour the musical heritage of anglophone Quebecers of the region as part of a province-wide series organized in collaboration with the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network. The Hemmingford installation of “A Different Tune: Musical Heritage in English-Speaking Quebec” will highlight the township’s rich musical history. Local musicians and ethnomusicologist Glen Patterson will deliver performances and presentations to celebrate this legacy. Photographs and documents on musicians from Hemmingford’s musical past, such as the Rufus Fisher Family Orchestra, will help visitors explore the music of bygone years.

 

PHOTO Courtesy of Archives Hemmingford The Rufus Fisher Family Orchestra circa 1952 The story of this group will be part of an event celebrating local musical history to be held in May at Archives Hemmingford

 

The Rufus Fisher Family Orchestra played regularly in the area from the 1940s to about 1957, the Archives’ board secretary Myrna Paquette said. “They were very well known, playing at dances in church halls, community halls, curling clubs, [and] sugar shacks.” They continued playing with other local musicians until the 1980s.
These and other musicians from bygone years will connect participants to the musical heritage of Hemmingford’s English-speaking community, while current performers will in turn close the circle, linking the past with the present through musical performance.
Archives Hemmingford, at 517 Champlain Ave. (Route 202), is open for visits and donations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Access is also available by appointment. For info, call 450-636-8686 or email hfordarchives@gmail.com.

 

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