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Johnson's legacy to be displayed at public library

May 14, 2013

Susan L. Reed, Library Director at Pawtucket Public Library, looks through one of the many volumes of Betty Johnson's historical collection, which will be housed in a newly renovated space to be called the Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center opening May 23. Photo/Ernest A. Brown

PAWTUCKET – Elizabeth J. “Betty” Johnson has been gone three years now but the 85-year-old’s love of local history is still paying dividends for the city she devoted so much energy toward.
Her carefully organized notes, clippings, photographs and Pawtucket memorabilia — previously kept in her longtime home at 30 Fruit Street — have been moved into the archives of the Pawtucket Public Library where they can be accessed by researchers wishing to delve into local lore.
Johnson’s collected topics of local history had helped her and fellow local historian James Wheaton write many guest articles on Pawtucket’s past for The Times and also helped her with her work doing genealogy studies for local families, according to Susan L. Reed, Pawtucket Public Library director.
The collection was also extensive and Reed said the library is still in the process of moving some of Johnson’s materials to its new home.
Johnson’s collection includes newspaper clippings and photographs of Pawtucket residents, events and landmarks, and even some assembled records for longtime local organizations such as the Pawtucket Rotary Club, the Quota Club and the Pawtucket Arts Council.
“She even had architectural plans for some of the buildings in Pawtucket,” Reed said while noting the inclusion of plans for the Potter-Burns Elementary School on Newport Avenue in Johnson’s collection.
Her photographic collection was bolstered by her habit of stopping by the Pawtucket Time office at 23 Exchange St. and asking for photographs that had been taken of events in the city but not used, according to Reed. She also collected local postcards and materials like the wooden “no parking” sign in her collection of memorabilia.
She owned a framed picture of the Masons Building on High Street that no longer exists; Reed said one of her favorites in Johnson’s trove is the Carroll M. Bill-painted mural of downtown Pawtucket that she obtained from the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Bank when it moved.
“She would go into the bank when they were moving and ask, ‘what are you going to do with the mural?’” Reed said. The bank’s manager eventually took the painting down and gave it to Johnson.
The mural has now been put up in the room where her collection is being stored and visitors to the library can catch a glimpse of it through a window when they pass by.
Johnson was a frequent visitor to the library and used its microfilm machine to view old records for her genealogy work until she obtained one of her own.
Reed worked with Johnson on two books on Pawtucket, put out by Arcadia Publishing. She remembers her as being very good at what she did.
“She knew how to do things the right way and she wouldn’t deviate from that,” Reed said. “You couldn’t cut any corners with her,” she added.
Johnson was born on April 1, 1924, and raised by her grandmother, Cheramanie “Cherry” Ratcliffe, herself an established collector and owner of many antiques in the family’s house in the South Street Historic District.
After marrying John Johnson, Betty Johnson renovated her circa-1828 home to national historic standards and won the distinction in 1976 of owning the first Pawtucket residence to be placed on the federal government’s register of historic places.
She also worked at the Slater Mill and volunteered with many area non-profit groups, including the Preservation Society of Pawtucket, which she helped found with her husband and others, and the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Before being turned over to the library, Johnson’s collection was maintained by the Pawtucket History Research Center, which she created to preserve her home and its contents. The board running the center eventually settled on donating her collection of history materials to the library and transferring her home to the Preservation Society of Pawtucket.
Although an extensive resource for those wishing to study local history, Reed said, the library does not have sufficient staff to provide full public access to the collection and will instead make it available to those doing research on a by-appointment basis.
Luckily for the library, Johnson, who had no formal training as a librarian, was a perfectionist when it came to her categorizing and marking her holdings.
“She had it pretty well organized and I don’t think we will do much in the way of changing it,” Reed said. “I think we would be very interested in having a lot of the materials digitized so we can make it more readily available to the public,” Reed said.
A gathering highlighting the collection’s arrival at the library will be held on May 23 at the library from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
For more information call the Library at 725-9581.


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