This southern Ontario nudist resort attracted hundreds in its heyday; now only wildlife and ghosts roam the grounds, as nature reclaims decaying site
It’s a summery treat to warm the heart on a snowy Christmas weekend— a look back at Fonthill, Ontario’s once famous Sun Valley Gardens, with new historical photos contributed by the founder’s son, Michael Ruehle, in restored colour, as well as images taken on the grounds during the summer of 2020, by @rural_explorer, David Torbett. Our original 2019 article follows the slideshow.
Sun Valley Gardens, 1955-2020 [40 slides]
FIRST PERSON: Read Michael Ruehle’s account of growing up at Sun Valley Gardens
As old-timers will remember—but newcomers may be surprised to learn—Pelham was home to one of the first nudist resorts in Canada, Sun Valley Gardens, a 25-acre spread in North Pelham that operated from 1954 to 1982. Karl Ruehle, its founder, made it his mission to promote nudism as a lifestyle. When he opened Sun Valley, there were only 18 members, but that grew to 300 within a few years. According to the book, “Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada,” this rapid growth “stemmed from Ruehle’s active, indeed aggressive publicity campaign. He distributed press releases, bought paid advertising, and appeared on talk shows and TV programs such as the Claim to Fame show on CHCH Hamilton, where he won a wristwatch because no one guessed that there was a nudist camp proprietor in darkest Ontario.”
In 1961, famed journalist June Callwood from CBC-TV’s news program Close-up, interviewed Ruehle on his experiences and principles of living a clothes-free lifestyle, which at that time included a no-alcohol policy on the premises. (Find a link to the interview at the bottom of this page.)
In fact, according to Au Naturel, while Ruehle’s annual open houses generated wide media attention, his customer service skills were sorely lacking.
“Members and visitors alike regarded Ruehle as autocratic and tight-fisted. He objected when people moved camp furniture, even if only to place a chair or picnic table in the shade. He interrupted games and competitions if they lasted longer than his schedule allowed. He closely monitored new couples in their tents. Many saw him as a ‘boot stomping Prussian.’”
As competing clubs were established, by the 1970s Ruehle relaxed some of his rules and allowed more singles in the resort, which included a health club, communal bathing and massage, as well as dances and parties. A kidney-shaped pool, built in 1956, was a longstanding centrepiece.
Even though the resort’s entertainment was turned up a notch, his membership dwindled. By 1974, the 20th anniversary of its founding, only one original member remained. Ruehle shut the resort in 1982.
The acreage has passed through various owners, however, and remains intact at the western end of Roland Road, where it dead-ends past Maple Street. Over 35-plus years, nature has gone a long way to reclaim the site. Derelict structures in various states of decay crumble quietly among lush foliage in the summer, as mosquitoes in their thousands enjoy abandoned, algae-layered water features. Google satellite imagery taken in 2018 suggests that little has changed since 2013, when the colour photos accompanying this article were taken.
One misconception about nudism is that it started by the hippie generation, or “Age of Aquarius,” in the 1960s. In fact, this textile-free movement started in Europe after the Industrial Revolution and grew in popularity after World War II. In reaction to the rigid authoritarianism of right-wing fascism, many in Germany began shedding their clothes in public parks and beaches. This subculture spread throughout Europe, where nude bathing became legal in many areas, and is still in vogue today.
Naturally, tropical climates always attracted hordes of sun-worshippers basking sans swimsuits. Nude activities for health enthusiasts, such as beach volleyball, calisthenics and swimming, were all a part of the enjoyment. While this movement underwent a slight transformation in the West, it is slowly being accepted today in certain areas, with time.
Improved sex-education classes are the best way to create a society that’s more liberal and accepting of a healthy body image and a nudist lifestyle, suggests Graham, who is on a first-name basis for confidentiality, which is one of the strict rules of Lilly Valley Resort, of Fort Erie. It’s one of a handful of clothing-optional clubs in Southern Ontario, and was itself founded by a former Sun Valley Gardens member in the early 1970s.
According to Graham, many of Lilly Valley’s customers tend to be middle-aged couples from Niagara.
“They come here to relax,” he said, as no loud music or parties are allowed. The rules of this non-profit organization don’t attract many singles or youths to the 1.5 acre site. The secluded setting provides for a great deal of intimacy, despite its neighbouring highway access. The location is largely unnoticeable, and as Graham describes it, “under the radar,” from most people in the community. There are no gate crashers, pranksters or peeping toms, and, in general, the surrounding community has left them alone.
While many are comfortable with nudism, there is still the understanding that it is not acceptable to the public at large, so Lily Valley operates with confidentiality at its forefront. “Everyone here is on a first-name basis. If people want to volunteer any more information, it’s up to them, but you don’t ask questions,” said Graham.
There have been a few visitors in high-level positions, he said, so maintaining privacy is understood.
It’s common for Europeans to travel to clothing-optional resorts, noted Graham. In the recent past, there were many visitors to Lilly Valley from the U.S., but that has changed since border crossings became more tedious and strict. Graham also cites two new nature resorts that have sprung up in Buffalo and Rochester, more convenient to Americans. In the U.S., Graham points out that Texas, Florida and California have embraced nudist resorts in large numbers.
Graham was introduced to nudism in the 1960s, when the counterculture began to resist the exploitation of perfect body images for advertising purposes, which in turn led to unrealistic personal expectations. Graham admits nudism requires a healthy body image—and a lack of self-consciousness.
“It’s often a lot harder for women,” said Graham, adding, “There are no Playboy bunnies here.” The honest realism means there are no social barriers or masks.
The idea begs the question: What would a pickup line be at a nudist club?
Graham smiles and replies,“What you see, is what you get.”
However, he added that he wouldn’t want to be involved in a dating service at a nudist club. While there are dating sites exclusively for nudists, those usually exist in big cities. Given its prohibition against parties and loud music, Lilly Valley doesn’t attract a singles crowd.
Nudist resorts command different social norms and principles from clothed societies, so sexual jokes and innuendos, and wandering eyes or hands, are not acceptable behaviour.
“There is a lot of eye contact,” notes Graham, which is why many people are comfortable interacting while being nude. Despite modernity, Graham notes there is a conservative puritan element that exists in parts of Canada and the U.S. that negatively perceives nudism as being a type of perversion.
An Ontario Supreme Court ruling in 1996 allowing women to be topless in a public place has not had much of an effect on the nudist movement here, remarked Graham. As it stands, some women are still getting flack for breastfeeding in public, which is also legal.
Peter, another member at Lilly Valley, said he went to Jamaica in 1980, when he was 30 years old. His wife returned from the beach, and said, “You’re going to think you died and went to heaven.”
Peter has frequented nudist vacations spots on “nakations” ever since. The idea of being able to pack everything for a week in just a carry-on is a dream. While saving on clothes, laundry and luggage may sound ideal, nudists cruises and vacation destinations usually cost twice as much as the dressed-up versions, he said.
Graham simply enjoys the feeling of sun on his skin. He believes people are more relaxed and stress-free when nude, and even look healthier with a tan.
“Everyone looks so white to me,” he remarked. Also, nudists don’t worry any more about skin cancer than clothed people.
“It’s all common sense. It’s no different for construction workers, or any other people who constantly work in the sun,” he said. “Everything in moderation.”
Bernie, who was born in Winnipeg and is of Polish descent, said, “I’ve been running around in my birthday suit for 60 years.”
It started as skinny-dipping as a kid, and that extended to “dares and watch me” as a teenager and into his adult years. Inarguably, Bernie has his inner child intact.
“We all come with the same parts, just different sizes and shapes,” he said.
With additional reporting by Dave Burket
While you’re here…consider taking out a Voice Membership to express your support for local journalism.