This week at work, I came upon a bit of information that combined a bunch of different concepts into one, and it kinda blew my historical mind. Working at the Archives has expanded my knowledge on all of these individual areas of St. Thomas's history, but I had no idea they were as connected as they are. If you're ready to figure out this tangled web with me then get comfy, I'm going to start at the very beginning!
The former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital was opened on 1 April, 1939. Even before construction was complete, it was known as the country's finest mental health hospital due to its modernity. The facility itself was almost entirely self-sufficient and included 460 acres of land for its food and produce needs.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn and the province of Ontario negotiated to lease the hospital buildings to the Department of National Defense in order to support the war effort.
By late October 1939, the hospital's approximately 2,400 patients were relocated to other facilities across the province, and its grounds became a training base for over 60,000 air force personnel in the service, repair, and manufacturing of R.C.A.F. aircraft.
The hospital was just months old when the war broke out and interrupted its original function, but this was not the only aspect of the site that was thrown a curveball in 1939. At the time, Elgin County was in the process of planning to host the 1940 International Plowing Match, which was to take place on the grounds of the massive new hospital site.
According to the hospital farm's former manager, Charles H. Denniss, in an article in the St. Thomas Times-Journal, the outbreak of the war almost brought a complete disruption to the Plowing Match plans, but it did not have to be cancelled and the preparations were carried through to "successful completion".
The 1940 International Plowing Match was thus held from 15th-18th October, on lands adjacent to what was then known as the Technical Training School, (but we now know as the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital), and Bannockburn Farms (property of Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn).
When driving down Sunset Drive in St. Thomas today, it is impossible not to look out at the massive hospital site and reflect on what a shame it is for the facility to sit empty. There are so many stories and memories associated with that area, and its wartime identity is just one small aspect. I hope that reading about its former days of glory will remind you of how things used to be in Elgin County, as well as keep the area's wartime history alive.
Thanks for reading,