From boarding a train to Yorktown, Sask. during the Second World War, to penning a newspaper series entitled Left to Tell at the age of 96, the woman for whom the Minden Legion is named has left few stones unturned.
Mabel Doreen Hewitt (Brannigan) passed away March 15, just two months short of her 99th year.
Mabel came into the world on May 13, 1924, and would go on to leave an indelible mark as a pioneer for independent women her entire life.
Her son, Kim, shared how as a teenager, Mabel worked with her mom, Ruth Sawyer, at the telephone switchboard in Maple Lake.
Then, after women were officially given permission to enlist in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Mabel volunteered and was sent to work in a factory out west. She told The Highlander in 2016, “after living in Haliburton County all my life among the lakes and hills … when I woke up in the morning on the train and all I could see was land touching sky, I never was so homesick in all my life.”
However, she took on the “very responsible job” to do her part for her country. She would later serve in war time in Ottawa. She returned home and married Basil, who passed away in 1978.
Kim said his mom’s sense of duty was something she instilled in him and his siblings as children.
“Things had to be done and we just had to do it and that’s how we carried on in life,” he said. As a result, he feels he and his siblings were “much stronger. We all had good careers and were leaders in our professions. That comes right back to ‘just do it’.”
At the same time, while strict, he said his mom ensured her children received an education, were involved in sports and music, making them all-around people. “She was very dedicated to her family.”
A hard-working Mabel became a homesteader on the family farm, worked at the telephone switchboard in Minden, and took in boarders. She went back to school to get a teaching degree at the age of 30. That job took her up north for a couple of years, put the pull of Haliburton County drew her back. After losing Basil, she sold real estate. She then bought the Fireside Restaurant that eventually became the Minden Legion – her namesake branch. She was also president of the Haliburton Legion for a time – a job she vowed to get after initially being denied membership as a woman.
She married Keith Brannigan in 1981, living in Haliburton and Carnarvon, where Mabel took care of her elderly parents, Ruth and Elmer. After Keith passed away in 2003, she moved to Horseshoe Lake and then Minden.
“She was very active in the Legion” says Kim. “That was her pride and joy in life.” He added his mom was community-oriented, devoted in particular to the Minden Fair.
Her independence ran deep and continued until only months before her passing in her own home. For example, after letting her driver’s license lapse, she decided, at 91, to get it back. She drove herself around for the next four years. Mabel was a lifelong learner. She continued her education into her 80s, taking university courses and travelling to England and Russia with her sister, Audrey. She was also a writer, and storyteller. She did not shy away from the Internet or an iPad. And she could be seen using her walker to make her daily trip to the post office to get the mail.
“I think that’s why she lived so long,” Kim said. “She just refused to give in. That was just her mindset. She could concentrate on things and get it done.”
That applied to her decision to write the Left to Tell series for The Highlander that was published in 2020.
She wanted to honour local veterans during the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. She would go on to write a 17-part series. Mabel was also featured in The Highlander’s Veterans of Haliburton County video series.
“I have to do this to pay tribute to these boys, and a few girls, from Haliburton County,” she said of the Left to Tell series.
“No matter what their motivation, the men and women in our armed forces were willing to put their own lives at risk for an ideal. They believed in the value of what they were doing. They faced incredible hardships, witnessed events that no one should have to witness, and pushed themselves to the limit of their endurance.”
A celebration of Mabel’s life will be held at a future date at the Legion.
Go to thehighlander.ca to see the video, story and Left to Tell series.