Tucked away behind Queenston Heights Park in Niagara Falls is a stately home containing some of the most important history of the Niagara Region. In the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum the seeds of political reform came forth through the miracle of publishing.
Located in the former home of William Lyon Mackenzie (grandfather of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the 10th Prime Minister of Canada), this Museum displays printer and printing press technology over the past 500 years and shows how important criticism of those in power for functioning democracy.
It all started in the early 19th century, when Mackenzie and his family emigrated from Scotland to York in Toronto, and then to Queenston in modern-day Niagara Falls. He opened a country store that flourished in the community, but he began to resent the government of the region. Much of the government at that time was controlled by an elite group called the Family Compact, which dominated many Upper Canada’s governments at the time. Soon, he gave up his store to start publishing a newspaper called the “The Colonial Advocate and Journal of Agriculture, Manufacture and Commerce” full time. This newspaper’s sharp commentary on the political state of the region began a dialogue and encouraged people to question the region’s politicians. In 1849, 26 years after the first issue was published, the government settled on a peaceful political evolution, all thanks to Mackenzie and a newspaper he printed in his home.
In the Mackenzie Printery, there lies a giant and rare collection of pieces of letterpress technology from all over the world and from various points in time.
Included in this is the Louis Roy Press, which is one of the last remaining original wooden letterpresses in the world. Though this is the rarest in their collection, visitors can use the press themselves and print works of art to take home. This particular press dates back to 1791 when John Simcoe ordered it for his administration. It eventually found its way to the Mackenzie house to print Mackenzie’s newspaper and since then, it has been passed along from museum to museum, eventually finding its way back to the Mackenzie house.
Along with this press, the museum features eight working presses and a fully functional linotype. A linotype was a machine used long before the days of computer printed newspapers, back when newspapers were made by plates with little letter stamps put together and used as one big stamp. This machine makes this process more efficient by placing and aligning the letters via a keyboard, so the operator can simply type the article and indenting each line of, say, a paragraph onto a metal plate. This indenting process, called typesetting, was later replaced by computer typesetting and the linotype was rendered obsolete, which makes this particular model so precious.
William Lyon Mackenzie was an interesting character unto himself. After writing and protesting the corrupt actions of the Family Compact, he ran for office in York and was elected to the House of Assembly. He later visited then U.S. President Andrew Jackson who convinced him that perhaps a republican government separated from the monarchy was the right choice for Upper Canada. He brought this proposal to the British government and was swiftly punished, including protesters attacking his house and throwing his printing presses into Lake Ontario. Nevertheless, he continued with politics and went on to become Toronto’s first mayor. He attempted leading a revolution similar to that of the American Revolution against the British, but it did not succeed. However, while he was in exile in the United States, the government went through a massive remodeling and by the time Mackenzie returned, most of the goals he wanted to achieve in government had been achieved (more political accountability, more representation, etc.). He died in Toronto on August 28, 1871.
The building itself has gone through its own trials and tribulations. By the turn of the century, the home showed signs of aging and by 1936, all that was left were the walls and a stone marker commemorating Mackenzie. That same year, Niagara Parks decided to restore the house and it was reopened in 1938 by the Mackenzie’s famous grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King. It was intended to be a museum for printing technology as it is today, but these plans were put to the side because Mackenzie’s original press was being kept at his house in York. It served as municipal office space and then to house the Kirby collection (referring to 19th century novelist William Kirby) until finally, in 1991, they became the museum that we know today. It’s also worth mentioning that Mackenzie planted five locust trees the day he published the first edition of his newspaper, two of which are still there.
The reason why this museum is so important today is that it emphasizes the importance of the free press in a democracy. Speaking truth to power is what keeps the powers-that-be accountable and because of Mackenzie, we live in a better Canada. The story of William Lyon Mackenzie is an important one relating to today’s political climate of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. It shows that if we keep pushing and fighting for justice, against seemingly impossible opposition, we can change how the government operates. Mackenzie’s political rivals went to great lengths to silence Mackenzie, but he continued criticizing. He famously placed a bottle containing a copy of the “Colonial Advocate” in the base of a monument being built for General Isaac Brock, and when Sir Peregrine Maitland heard of this, he halted to production to dig it out of the craft masonry. Nevertheless, Mackenzie was dedicated to exercising his right as a citizen to criticize the plutocracy he saw. Let this be a lesson in the importance of journalism in a democracy. It’s no mistake that the stone marker outside the museum reads “Home of William Lyon Mackenzie. The birthplace of responsible government, 1823-1824”.
-Luke Webster, Assistant Arts & Culture Editor