The boys home that Gladys and her five sisters ran in NOTL, ca. 1940. The building is now the high-end Riverbend Inn. FERGUSON FAMILY

There are times when we look back at our own family’s story and draw a breath as we realize that they had a small but important place in the history of our country. In my dad’s large Ansley family there were four boys and six girls. Two daughters and two sons fought overseas in the First World War. One son, Alfred, was killed in action in France. Another, Russell, had been POW in Germany, and the two sisters were nurses in Italy. This is the story of their lives after World War I as the girls pioneered the first school of its kind in North America.

Following the horrors of the war, the three Ansleys in Europe returned to Canada: Russell returned following a six-month rehab in Holland after his prisoner- of-war experience. Nora, a nurse, was invalided home early with severe rheumatoid arthritis. And Gladys, also a nurse, had a late sailing in early 1919. It was later in that year that the two sisters made their final plans for their futures in Canada.

After discussing the pros and cons of a possible business, their criteria always was: Where is the greatest need? And that always returned them to the idea of helping handicapped children with severe Down syndrome, who were a neglected class in Canada and elsewhere. They knew they needed as many of the sisters as would be interested in order to succeed. They were pleasantly surprised that five of the six sisters were enthusiastic about this venture. Birdie was caring for her father so could not help at that time, but Del and Kate were on board as teachers, and Olga, the youngest, was trained in music, dance and calisthenics, and was also the only driver.

The Ansley sisters, ca. 1940. FERGUSON FAMILY

Gladys and Kate took a course in psychiatry at the Clarke Institute in Toronto (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). At the end of the course, Dr. Clarke asked each student how they intended to use their education. When Gladys and Kate told him about their plans, Dr. Clarke said it could never work with the interaction of two in a family. When he heard that there would be six of them, plus their mother, he threw up his hands saying that he wanted to see their results someday. (About two years later he came unannounced and was impressed.)

Many preparations were necessary before their advertising could start. In June 1920, they found a large house to rent on Bellevue Terrace near Rodman Hall, St. Catharines. Their advertising was in magazines in Canada and USA, and the rather long name for the school was, “The Ansley Home and School, for Children who Deviate from Normal.” It was to be home for both staff and students.

At that time in North American history, many children with mental problems were kept hidden in the home in shame, given no teaching, never taken for drives or walks in public places. The Ansleys had a different plan and wanted to prove that it could be doable. Their students would be treated as a family, could play outside, go on little trips on the street car—or, as a treat for good behaviour, have a ride in the car to see the lake, watch a parade, etc.

The sisters had written to the Ontario Parliament and the Minister of Education to obtain permission to open the school but received a letter thus: “There are no laws at present to allow the opening of any school of this kind so do not start until such laws are passed.”

Their typically very polite but firm return letter to the Minister of Education was, “We will go home and start the school, and when the laws are passed, we will conform to them!”

But it was not that easy. The ads had gone into the papers and magazines in Canada and USA with no response for several weeks. Money was running low. Finally, they had a response from a couple with a daughter who came for their interview. The parents were agreeable but could not afford to pay the monthly tuition of $150. They could only afford $25. So the sisters accepted the girl and their business finally started.

Slowly, over months, the students came along, soon growing to enjoy this life of more freedom instead of being hidden in their rooms at home. Some came with tricycles or wagons or a little puppy. Simple lessons were taught, but in many cases, essentials like up and down, here and there, and please and thank you, had to be instilled first, as they were seldom accustomed to taking directions. Many had the IQ of a three-year old in a 15-year-old body. Teaching was often done with singing or marching games. Playing with big blocks helped with coordination so they could eventually hold crayons. Some children had no speech but eventually learned to understand the spoken word. Each had to learn to adapt to being near many people and to get along with them.

Monthly report cards that Gladys compiled were sent to parents. Progress was marked not in grades but by comments, e.g., “Danny is remembering to say thank you.” Patients improved socially as they were also included when friends and other family members were present. There were many drop-in guests as well as invited ones. Decorations abounded at holiday times.

In 1927 the Ansleys moved their school to River Road, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, now home to The Riverbend Inn. Here there was a barn for the cows and pony, a garden shed, greenhouse, huge flower and vegetable gardens, a cottage and a cherry orchard. Jim Currie, Gladys’ chosen son who became a Mountie, and who I wrote about in an earlier Column Six back in February, made good friends with one of the boys who had no speech but could hum any tune after one hearing. Later, when Jim was home on leave, he always brought his friend home for dinner and a visit with Gladys.

The sisters closed the school in 1972. Over the 52 years that the Ansley School operated, they felt they had contributed to the understanding of the need to help those who, through no fault of their own, had been born with a handicap. They lived their motto: “Every child has the right to receive education suited to his needs and capacity in a home-like situation.”

After an intermediate owner, the Niagara-on-the-Lake property was bought by the Wiens family, who massively renovated it to create the Riverbend Inn. After being sold to and run by a Chinese firm, local company Peller Estates Winery bought the Inn in mid-March of this year.