1992 Gowans Home Reunion
In 1992, the first reunion of the children of Gowans Home was held amid much excitement, anticipation and, for many, trepidation. Attending the festivities were more than 160 former residents of Gowans Home, with spouses, family and friends. Interestingly, but probably not surprisingly, many spouses were also former Gowans Home residents.
Ruth Jensen Whitehead – September 1992
The lovely little town of Collingwood on the tip of Georgian Bay was the site chosen by a large missionary society, the Sudan Interior Mission, as the ideal place to bring up children. The original Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children was the house that is now the Spike and Spoon Restaurant on Hurontario Street. It was quickly evident that this house would not adequately house the children so when the stately old Victorian mansion owned by [former] Collingwood Mayor Frank Telfer became available, it was purchased by the Sudan Interior Mission as a home for both Canadian and American children. As more children came, and the percentage of teenagers grew, two other houses were acquired. The Cedar Chest on Cedar Street was the first Girls’ House, followed by the mansion [on the northwest] corner of Third and Oak streets.
With 26 rooms, a ball field, a tennis court that doubled as an ice rink in winter, and playground equipment, this old house located at the [southwest] corner of Third and Oak streets was a perfect place for children to live.
Most parents of the children worked in Africa, although some were in India and South America. Many of the parents knew each other, and a closeness among the children was developed that has lasted through the years and continues to the present day, spanning Canada, the United States and spreading to England, Australia and Africa…
By the mid-1960s, adequate housing, schools and medicine were available to children of missionaries in countries where their parents were working, so the Gowans Home was closed and the house sold…
The reunion this weekend will include a nostalgic tour through the Gowans Home, now owned by the National Ski Academy of Canada.
Jim Whitehead, whose parents Stanton (Stan) and Rachel (Rae) ran the home following Miss Kaercher’s retirement in 1945 had much to share about his memories of growing up at Gowans Home. Jim was five and his brother, Harold, 14, when they took up residence at 200 Oak Street, Collingwood.
Jim was very generous with his time for me, and I have so much to share with you in future posts, including his recollections while we toured the home together in 2009. Here’s some of what Jim had to say in a 1992 article published in the Collingwood Connection:
“When you have 40 kids around, you always have someone to play with…My parents were missionaries, bound for Nigeria in 1945, when they were asked to stay for a month at Gowans Home to help out with the children…They did, and a month turned into a life’s work. Missionaries talk a lot about the Lord’s Will, and that’s what they always said it was…
“Missionaries headed for Africa were heading for places where there were definite dangers to children in terms of diseases, poor sanitation, and back then, there were no schools. My brother and I were the lucky ones, we had our parents with us.”
But the Whiteheads seldom gathered together as a family of four, even at dinnertime. “My parents were very, very careful not to make a distinction between us and the other children in the home. We had eight in a bedroom when we were younger, and then as you got older, you got more space and more privacy. We had games organized against the neighbours and we came out on top a lot.
“We were like a little United Nations, with kids from Britain and the United States…I, at least, had my parents with me. It certainly is something that is discussed when we get together, how living away from your parents affects you—who you are now, and what you could have been if life had been different.”
Gowans Home Reunion 1992
Names listed below were provided by Marth Baird — a few unknown. I’ve tried to identify by clothing some folks Martha pointed out, to help match names with people. Maiden names of women who married are in square brackets. Visitors to this blog are invited to add or correct names. Please forgive any errors. If you’d like to share your photos, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to include them in future blog posts.
Back row L to R: Bob Foster, Victor Garrett, Dick Harris, Donald Harling, Leslie Harrison, Jinny [Chenault][white dress], Mark [? – behind Jinny; four men behind Jinny, to Mark’s left, unknown], Lloyd Harrison, Colin McDougall, Robert Ler Meer, Ron Stanley, [unknown], Howard Brant, Betty Ler Meer, Doug Ostein, Betsy [Ostein], Harold Garrett, Estelle Morris [purple blouse], Helen Thompson, Mary Thornton, [man behind Mary unknown].
Standing LEFT in photo, foreground behind those seated, L to R: Elaine [Cairns][very end], Mamie [Merriweather][in blue/polka-dots], Betty Collins [sunglasses], [unknown], Rhoda Foster, Elma Ganton; behind this row, L to R: Linda Klassen [behind Mamie in blue/polka-dots], [unknown], [unknown], Betty [Dancy][barely visible], Gladys [Dancy] [dark hair], [unknown – tall man], Ruth Marie [Coen], Paul Garrett, Lois [Harris][in front of Paul].
Standing RIGHT in photo, foreground behind those seated, L to R: Agnes Hall [barely visible behind woman in red dress], Margaret Hall [red dress], Edith Milloy [red blouse, black skirt], Hazel Taylor, ][white flowered dress], Rae Whitehead [pink jacket – Managed home with husband Stan], Mae Pomeray [red jacket], Muriel Harrington [very end]; behind this row, L to R: Irene [McIvor] [silver coiffed hair], Alice [McIvor] Clarke [red hair], Betty Mae [Chenault][salt & pepper hair], Beth [Percy], Jean [Playfair], Gordon Beacham [in suit], Joan [Morris] [in blue, behind Gordon], Jim Thompson [sunglasses, to left of Irene McIvor], Marlene [Germaine] [dark blue], Jonathan Maxwell [tall], Don Rough, Wally Morris, Charles Germaine, [unknown, barely visible at end].
Seated on ground L to R: Gene Thamer, Paul Wilson, [unknown], Naomi [Coen], Gerald Hunt, Esther [Collins], Walter Dancy, John Forth, [unknown], Bob Morris, Mike Harling, Vera Turnbull, Gowan Thamer, Clyde Playfair.
Seated BEHIND front row, L to R: Jean Ganton [in purple], Louise [Ganton][in blue], Mildred [Chenault] Ladd, Martha [McDonald] Baird [red jacket], Jean [McDonald], Joy [McDonald], Gwen [Hay], Carolyn [Thamer], Ruth [Collins][floral], Lola [Turnbull], Frank Rice, Walter Rice, Wilber Rice [sunglasses], Dorothy [Merriweather], [unknown].
Seated BEHIND second row, L to R: Joy [Harris], Peggy [Jensen], Evelyn Dancy, Betty [Ler Meer], Elizabeth [Forth]. Same row, on RIGHT side of photo, L to R: [unknown], [unknown], Edith Streight [white collar], Alison Turnbull [dark pink].
Another voice reflects sorrowful reflections of a missionary child who didn’t have a choice about sacrificing a life with beloved parents. Estelle McLellan had her own take on her experience at the Gowans Home, and shared this in an article she wrote for the Enterprise-Bulletin newspaper, published August 21, 1992, as plans for the first reunion of Gowans Home children were coming to fruition.
“Many of us…were torn from our parents at the age of 2-4, cue mainly to direct orders from the board of directors of Sudan Interior Mission…In all my years at Kent Academy in Nigeria and in Gowans Home, I have never come across [abuses]. They were good people, although sometimes misguided, and the men and women I knew who served as missionaries were dedicated and spiritual people who gave up everything to Africans in need. They did it not for monetary gain or for any hope of recognition, but because of their love of God and their fellow man.
“I did not like being left at Gowans Home and I missed so much in not living with my parents. My father was a highly educated and talented man whose expertise as a doctor won recognition from the Queen of England and the Canadian Government. My mother was, and is, the most loving, wonderful person I know and I miss being guided by them. I have always resented the fact that I was left and rebelled all my life at the life we led, but I am not angry at my parents but at the system that forced them to do it.
“I believe in the need for missionaries, not because they spread the gospel, but primarily for the healing and help they provide.
“You could not watch the look of joy on a leper’s face as he received his certificate that said his disease was arrested…and not know that my father and his expertise was desperately needed.
“You would never forget the love shining from a leprous woman’s eyes as she held her baby to a breast. She would never have had the joy of breastfeeding if my father hadn’t designed special garments for leprosy patients so they would not transmit the disease to their children.
“The unwilling victims of this caring and wonderful dedication were the children of these soldiers in the battle for Christ. The intense discipline and lack of love in the boarding school was sometimes unbearable and the result was emotional scars that were a long time healing. We sought relationships outside the Home and formed strong emotional ties with people in town who went to our school and church. They were our confidantes, our friends and basically the only source of love we had in our stay here.
“If it hadn’t been for all of you, we would not have learned to love or accept love. Because of you, we left Collingwood with some wonderful memories.”
In 1993, Gowans Homer Don Harling reported in Simroots, a publication of SIM, on the success of the first reunion of “GH kids”:
The rooms at 200 Oak Street in Collingwood, Ontario were alive with voices. Familiar yet somehow different…deeper, fuller, and more mature than those that had echoed in the rooms 30-60 years ago. The front stair bannister strained under the weight of adult “kids,” those same “dis” who in younger years, much lighter and more agile, had found it convenient to dust the bannister by sliding down it.
The occasion was a reunion of those who called 200 Oak Street “home” during those years it was known as Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children…Memories came flooding in as the rooms were toured…some pleasant, others heavy with the pain of separations…“This is the room I slept in…Do you remember when…we used to flood the tennis courts for a skating rink?…used to climb the apple trees?…used to play ball in the playing field?”
But there were some memories almost too painful and private to verbalize:
“This is the closet where I hid to cry when my parents left for their missionary work.”
“I can still see the fading headlights as my parents pulled out of the driveway and left for another four years on the mission field.”
Even though some of the memories were painful, it was great to be back as adults. One of the GHers expressed the sentiments of most when he exclaimed to his wife, “Honey, they shrunk the home!” What had seemed like a massive old mansion was not just a large Victorian home…About 180 people attended the banquet, 126 of whom were actual GH residents and staff members…It was a great experience and a time of healing for many.
Gowans Home Reunion 2000
Back row, L to R: Gowan Thamer, Gladys Dancy Carey, Joy VanderSchie Miller, Colin McDougall, Vern Thompson, Jinny Chenault McDougall, Bob Morris, Walter Dancy, Wally Morris, Gene Thamer, Bill Strong, Gordon Wilson, Gerald Hunt, Paul Garrett, Derek Cairns, Victor Garrett, Brian Hodges, John Percy, Ed Cook, Craig Cook.
Middle row, L to R: Lawrence Clark [striped shirt], Margaret Clark [dark outfit], Mary Clark Jackson [bright blue], Rusty Harling, Paul Wilson, Lillian Power Raymer [in floral], Iva Tuttle Power [in green], Vera Turnbull [wearing vest], Betty Dancy Thompson [black top with white collar], Betty Collins, Helen Thompson, Allison Turnbull [in red], Peggy Jensen Pieper [red/pink dress], Elaine Cairns Ross, Ruth Jensen Whitehead, Betty Chenault Harling, Marilyn Harling, Carolyn Christiansen Nelson, Marion Kirk, Paul Craig, Harold Whitehead. Seated front, L to R: Martha McDonald Baird, Ruth Collins McCombie, Esther Collins McGibbon, Carolyn Thamer Repko, Dorothy Wilson Letchford, Ian Cairns, Leigh Forsberg, Grant Millar, Jim Whitehead, Beryl Kirk, Paul Forth, Mike Harling.