Michael Ruehle, son of Sun Valley Gardens owners, recalls his childhood on 25-acre naturist camp
My parents moved to Fenwick from Toronto in about 1955-56 to operate a nudist camp — a bit unusual in those days I guess, but my father had had this plan since his youth in Germany, where it was already a fairly popular idea. He had found out that a small group of people from Fonthill, St. Catharines, and Toronto had started to gather on some land on Roland Road, and my parents acquired the property, I believe in 1955. They called it Sun Valley Gardens and started to make significant improvements.
At its peak, from the early ‘60s to the mid-‘70s, there were about 500 adult members, and it was one of the largest nudist clubs in North America, with members coming from as far as Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and Cleveland—even annual seasonal visitors from Los Angeles and Florida. It was so well-known that we once received a letter sent from West Africa which was addressed just, “Sun Valley Gardens, Canada.” The post office in Montréal marked it “try Toronto,” Toronto marked it, “near St. Catharines,” and of course, St. Catharines knew where to send it.
I was born in 1957 and lived on the property full time until I left to go to Toronto. An interesting childhood, I would say.
I attended Law’s School for Grades 1 and 2, and then Hansler, South Pelham, Pelham Center, senior public school in Fonthill, Pelham High (until it closed when I was in Grade 11), graduated from E. L. Crossley in 1976, then moved to Toronto for university.
I kept a cottage on the property and stayed there off and on until about 2007, when the property was sold, shortly after my father, Karl, passed away in 2006. My mother, Marlies, passed away just last year, in May. (I’m writing this on Dec. 26, 2020, which would have been her 89th birthday.)
From the very beginning, rather than be secretive, my father took the opposite tack. He made a point of advertising an “open house” weekend so all the neighbors, local politicians, and news media could come and see the place.
He did this twice. The first time, any members who chose to be there that weekend remained fully clothed to avoid any risk of overreaction from the police. In the event, it went really well and some 2000 people toured the place. People realized that it wasn’t a wild sex club or anything, and the press was generally complimentary.
The second time, he had everyone sign a waiver at the entrance that they were aware there would be nudity. Both events were very successful and meant that instead of being harassed, the place was quite quickly accepted by the authorities. In fact, as a direct result, there was a core of members who were locals from Pelham, Welland, and St. Catharines, most of whom kept it a bit quiet. My father was also very astute about the value of positive media coverage, and welcomed visiting interviewers from CHCH-TV, the CBC on multiple occasions (notably June Callwood’s interview), and from some of the Buffalo stations. I’d say our membership was divided about equally between the Canadians and Americans from the Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Rochester area.
Source: The Voice
Original publication 26 December, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 12th January 2021
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