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.
People realized that it wasn't a wild sex club or anything, and the press was generally complimentary
Back when Sun Valley Gardens was in full swing as a nudist camp, the Niagara Regional Police used to come visit now and again. My father was on pretty good terms with them, which meant he could count on help if there were any nosy youth (you guys know who you were) trying to sneak onto the property for a peek. Whenever a new officer was hired, it was part of the hazing to take him out, without any heads-up, to the camp. Generally the senior guy would say it was, "to get to know the rural parts of Niagara better." At some point the senior officer would say, "Let's get a coffee," and the junior officer would of course wonder where there was coffee, out in the middle of nowhere. So they'd drive out Roland Road to the front gate, ring the bell and talk to my dad, who'd buzz them in. The junior officer was still unaware, because the "Sun Valley Gardens" sign is ambiguous. They would drive up the long curved driveway and, when they got to the parking area by the clubhouse, the junior guy's eyes would bug out because, of course, naked people were walking around!
My father would meet them at their car in his famous “rubber boots and nothing else,” and escort them down to the snack bar beside the pool area, where the police officers would sit and chat with my parents and some of the other folks while drinking their coffee and having a piece of cake.
My father encouraged these visits, of course, because (a) it meant the police were accepting of nudist things and knew firsthand that there was no weird stuff going on (okay, naked is weird for most of you, but nothing really weird) and (b) if there was an emergency they all knew how to get there fast.
Many people wonder about how folks got to be nudists and join the club. In those days, well before social media, my father would run advertisements that were more or less specific, depending on where they ran. Some would be in the various nudist magazines of the time, and these would basically say, "Come visit Sun Valley Gardens, the best nudist camp near Toronto and upstate New York."
He also ran ads in some of the regional newspapers (not all permitted it), that would be a bit more discreet: "Enjoy a carefree lifestyle at Sun Valley, Canada's best family-oriented naturist campground." There would be an address and "Visitors by appointment only." Most people would write for more information and be sent the many brochures we had on hand. Visitors would arrive at the gate, ring the bell, talk to my dad, and be let in.
Of course, usually the half of the couple suggesting to try nudism would be the husband, and very often the wife would be a bit more reticent—in those days anyway—so it was certainly a bit of a shock for these fellows to be greeted at the clubhouse parking lot by my father, in his rubber-boots-and-nothing else, with the usually-not-visible parts being at about eye level through the car window.
The visitors would be shown a place to park and be invited to tour the grounds, clothed at first. They would walk down the driveway toward the valley, where the pool, snack bar and other facilities were located, probably being greeted by other members (pun intended) as they went. On a weekend there would usually be quite a few people there, and when the visitors reached the valley where the big open area was there they were: sunning, swimming, playing cards or cribbage, volleyball or badminton—adults and kids.
Now what often happened at about this point was that the husband would be slightly disappointed that the place was not full of Playboy models, but of people rather more like your typical Walmart customer, if they were nude. On the other hand, the wife would stop being worried about whether her looks would match up, and realize that these people were just comfortable in their own skin.
After getting toured around the whole property—the cottage area, the campground and trailer area, and the clubhouse building—my father would invite them to spend the rest of the day, but explained that they would now have to be nude as well. It was pretty rare that people would leave. They would change at their car, take a towel (all nudists keep a towel with them to sit on) and go back to the valley to meet some other members, swim, or sit at the snack bar to chat with my mother. And then they would decide whether to become annual members, or to come occasionally and pay the daily or weekend fee.
The stranger thing for me was when I first went to school and had to understand that it was expected that people always wear clothes
In those days it was generally not permitted for a single man to come alone. This was to head off any kind of "singles bar" atmosphere. There were a few exceptions: one fellow from Toronto had been coming since before my parents bought the place, so he was grandfathered in and was a member until he was in his 90s. And there were a couple of others over the years. Some were men who had originally come with their girlfriends, and when they split up, they or sometimes the girlfriend would be allowed to keep attending. Later on, in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, that all loosened up quite a bit.
By the late ‘60s some families even lived there full time, but most were either weekend visitors if local, or stayed for two- or three-week vacations in the summer, with many families coming back for ten years or more, with semi-permanent trailer locations or summer-only cottages. Sometimes the children became members in their own right when they grew up, many of whom I still know. The place was always very well represented with kids of all ages, although there was often an awkward stage at puberty, when some kids would stop coming with their parents for a little while, or they'd even stop attending altogether. But mostly the kids got through that experience as well. I mean, there were certainly no secrets about what was happening to their bodies—they could see the adult version all around them. The fact that no one made a big deal of it to them was, I think, a very healthy thing for their self-image.
I’m often asked by friends when they discover how I grew up, “What was that like?”
Well, it felt perfectly normal, to be honest. The stranger thing for me was when I first went to school and had to understand that it was expected that people always wear clothes, even in nice weather. Seemed a bit ridiculous, but that’s where I learned that cultural norms are all relative.
We never concealed where we lived, so it was the subject of a lot of curiosity among the other kids. But most of my friends, male or female, were permitted to come visit me — another benefit of the “open house” policy, because their parents had presumably visited. I had another large group of friends at Sun Valley Gardens as well, who would be there either on weekends or for two or three weeks at a time, and I would see them every summer.
I also get asked, “Do you have to be nude all the time?”
No, it’s just expected that if the weather permits, you don’t walk around dressed when everyone else is not. Raining or cold? Wear something waterproof, or a sweater if you’re cold. Women on their period? They’d wear a bikini bottom or shorts. But otherwise you’d just naturally choose to be nude.
So, finally, some corrections, or a least, an alternate perspective. An oft-cited book on nudism in Ontario, Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada, perpetuates some pretty harsh criticisms of my father. I am the first to admit that he was a strong-willed curmudgeon and had a temper. People thought he could be dictatorial at times (me too), but the book seems to rely too heavily on the statements of some folks who left Sun Valley Gardens on bad terms, and there are of course two sides.
Yes, he was pretty strict, partly because he knew if anything bad happened there, the local authorities would stop being so friendly. And he did not appreciate things like littering or having members step barefoot in someone's dog poop (which ultimately led to a dog ban, because people would not keep their dogs curbed).
It was said in the book that he didn’t allow people to rearrange the outdoor furniture. Not at all true — what he didn’t appreciate was it being dragged away from the public valley area to a personal campsite, or rearranged and left somewhere for him to put back himself later. And I never saw him limit people playing any of the sports. He had no interest in imposing any kind of activity schedule for others. Maybe someone was hogging the horseshoe pitch or shuffleboard court all day and he asked them to make it available for others?
I do know we had a lot of fun: huge bonfires, campfire sing-alongs, “luau”-style pig roasts and lamb roasts, Halloween and other impromptu parades, dance parties with DJs and treasure hunts for the kids.
One of the main sources of discord was alcohol. Alcohol was a pet peeve for my father, and although he wasn't anti-alcohol as such, he was mainly concerned that just one bad situation due to excess drinking would cause him a lot of trouble. It was only quite late, in the mid-’70s I think, that he finally started to allow people to drink alcohol at the clubhouse and elsewhere. Until then it was only permitted at your own campsite, trailer or cottage. So if you discreetly had a drink in your own place, that was okay, but loud, late-night drinking parties would get you warned, or summarily expelled. Some of the folks who couldn’t tolerate these alcohol rules went off to start their own very different style of nudist camps, for example near Hamilton.
The focus of the book is on my father, but I should also say that my mother was very much responsible for the success of Sun Valley Gardens. I still meet or speak with people who knew her and were strongly impressed by her ability to keep everything going.
There was definitely a decline in membership starting in the mid- ‘70s, but this was true of almost all nudist camps at that time, often because people had started to combine their nudism with going south for a vacation (which wasn’t so common before) or looking for a more party-like atmosphere. So they stopped coming to the campground-style nudist resorts. Many of the nudist resorts then went down a more commercial route to increase revenue, with big parties every weekend, a real emphasis on alcohol sales and even open-to-the-public judged "naked women" events — I call it that because it really got away from the nudist philosophy and into marketing nakedness. This was never my father’s style.
The end of the Sun Valley Gardens era really came when my parents split up. My father was left to run the camp, but it was pretty clear that he was not a people-person and had relied on my mother to do most of that, so it didn’t go so well. And his heart wasn’t in it anyway, so he closed it. He would be very sad to see how the place looks now, but he wouldn’t have compromised to keep it going either.
Am I still a nudist today?
In the long run, I haven’t kept up “being a nudist,” i.e., attending a nudist campground. I’ve moved around the world too much, and it’s just not been a priority. I’ve gone on holidays to nude resorts in the Caribbean, and visited nude beaches on my travels. The main thing I think I carry with me from that upbringing is to understand that nudity per se is not sexual. All this weirdness about whether some particular part of the body is visible or not, or the idea that a man (or woman) “can’t control themselves” if they see too much skin, is just ludicrous to me. I applaud that toplessness is legal in Ontario, but also recognize that by harassing, ogling and cat-calling women if they do choose to go topless, men are causing women to not take advantage of this legal freedom. (It’s a lose-lose situation, guys! Wise up.)
It has also caused me to be very accepting of a wide range of ways of living. I’ve lived in many places in the world, feel comfortable with the idea that "the way we do things here" is not “the best” and certainly not the only way to live, and I am adamant that people should be able to choose their preferred way to live, as long as it doesn’t directly harm or restrict the freedoms of others. Be gay, straight, bi, poly, asexual or whatever; choose your expressed gender according to how you perceive yourself and how you feel comfortable in your skin; practice any religion you choose or none, but don’t force your beliefs on others; treat people from all races and cultures equally and value them.
This is more than mere “tolerance”—it is affirmative acceptance—and nudism (and Canadian multiculturalism) was my gateway. ◆
RELATED: A history of Sun Valley Gardens
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