Betty Lou Harmison honored as History Hero for her life
Betty Lou Harmison of Berkeley Springs has been named a History Hero for 2007 by the West Virginia Archives and History Commission.
Harmison was nominated by the Museum of the Berkeley Springs where she has served on the board of directors since she helped found the organization in 1984. She is currently vice president and chairs the Exhibits Committee.
"We nominated Betty Lou not just for all she has done for the Museum, but also because for many of us, she's the queen of local history," said Tamme Marggraf, the museum's executive director.
Harmison arrived in Berkeley Springs at the beginning of World War II, just in time to finish high school and marry Bill Harmison before he went off to war.
She was a Lambert and her uncle ran the pharmacy that was located in the Washington Hotel. By marrying Harmison, Betty Lou found herself surrounded by the rich history of hospitality that came along with his family's business — the Parkview Inn.
In the midst of history
"I always liked history, even as a child," Harmison said. "But here in Berkeley Springs, there was so much of it and it was all right here where I was living."
She read about the original lots in town and found herself intrigued by what the town had been.
After the war and several years of studying history at George Washington University, she settled into the role of wife and mother. Husband Bill worked with Uncle "Toad" Harmison who, along with his wife Jennie, built the Park View in 1933 on the lot where John Strother's famous Berkeley Springs Hotel had once stood.
The younger Harmisons inherited the inn in the 1960s and sold it in 1971 to Jack and Adele Barker. It was renamed the Country Inn.
Harmison said her husband was a fifth generation innkeeper in Berkeley Springs. "There was a William Harmison involved with the Berkeley Springs Hotel when President James Polk visited in 1848," she said.
During the brief period when she and her husband were proprietors of the Park View, she collected and saved all the documents related to its building and operation. "I found the papers stuffed in boxes and drawers," she said.
Today, Betty Lou Harmison has the Park View Inn's history neatly arranged in binders. Her plan is to write the history of the Inn.
She has collected and written a lot of Berkeley Springs history since she arrived here more than 60 years ago. She has also mourned the passing of much of that history as structures burned or were razed for new construction.
"After the war, everyone rushed out and modernized their buildings," she said. "What they did was make them ugly."
In the mid-1970s, with her three children grown and the inn sold, Harmison turned her attention to local history in earnest.
Her first big effort was the 1976 Bicentennial lot signs
and map project. With the help of young David McBee, she researched all the deeds, unearthed drawings and photos from her archives and produced the original town walking
tour. There are still remnants
of those lot markers around town.
Next came the Museum of the Berkeley Springs. Harmison was there at the beginning and has never stepped off the board of directors, even in difficult times.
"It was important to me. I would not give up on it," Harmison said. "A museum in town had long been a dream. I was elated when it finally happened."
She helped start the museum on its professional path by bringing in Shepherd University professor Chuck Hulse as a consultant.
Harmison has served in virtually every position with the museum, from docent and tea pourer to fundraiser and exhibit director. She used her personal collection to create the hotel exhibit which she plans to expand in the next year.
Keeper of record
One of her most important contributions was to develop and maintain a detailed accessioning system which allows the tracking of every artifact in the museum collection.
In 2006, her exhaustive documentation was crucial in rescuing the Mendenhall 19th century dresses, which belonged to the museum but were mistakenly being sold on eBay. According to Harmison, once forms are found for displaying the dresses, they will be shown at the museum.
Currently Harmison is a member of the Town of Bath Landmark Commission and is assisting in the effort to finish the survey of town structures to get it listed as a National Historic District.
"I tried to do this in 1976 but was only able to get Berkeley Springs State Park listed," Harmison said. "Now that everything is 30 years older, it is possible."
The documents submitted to nominate Harmison as a History Hero describe her local projects. In addition, they cite two qualities that set her apart.
The first is her devotion to documented accuracy: "Betty Lou is able to discriminate between handed-down family stories, which may or may not be based in fact, and period documentation. This makes it possible to accept her information without concern about its accuracy."
The other quality is her willingness to share her extensive knowledge and materials with anyone interested, making her an invaluable resource for continued study of Berkeley Springs history.
Harmison's motivation for her lifetime of effort is the defining statement for all who aspire to being a History Hero.
"History is important and we have to do everything possible to preserve it," she said. "It defines the community."
To many, it is clear that for Betty Lou Harmison, "doing everything possible" occasionally means accomplishing the impossible.
March 17 events
Harmison will be honored for her local history work on Saturday, March 17, when the Museum of the Berkeley Springs opens for the 2007 season.
A reception is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the museum, followed by readings from George Washington's writings, a mid-March tradition at the museum for the past decade. Young Washington first saw the warm springs in March, 1748.
At noon that day, there will be a luncheon at the Country Inn in Harmison's honor.
"We encourage people to get their tickets early," said Tamme Marggraf. "This honor is long overdue for Betty Lou and we know her many fans and friends will want to be there."
Lunch reservations are necessary and can be made by calling either 258-9147 or 258-3738.