One of the major summer events for our Ponoka district, the province, and the nation in 2011 was the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Provincial Mental Hospital, now Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury. Many cherished memories of the steady growth, challenges, patient and treatment care, and ongoing successes have been proudly shared by former and present staff and community over all those exciting years. The Ponoka News enjoys presenting these milestone stories and photos in our weekly historical features of Reflections and Remember When?
The occupational therapy department
This active instructional and creative department started at the new Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka in 1924 in a tiny area near the operating room. Projects for the patients in the beginning included basketry, simple woodwork, and fancy work, and would grow steadily as space was made available and as patients’ skills were realized and encouraged.
Under the early direction and leadership of Gladys M. Crysler, Rita Barnhouse, Elsie Scott, Mrs. Liddell and other enthusiastic staff, the program would become so popular a modern, separate building was opened in 1950. This shop included a shoe repair, upholstery department, and much more, and the Occupational Therapy Department quickly became one of the first of its kind on the continent, and would become internationally recognized for its inspiration and treatment successes!
The garage and maintenance department
This department was first opened in 1924 under the direction of driver/mechanic Harold Watson, who managed the rapidly expanding hospital transportation fleet until his retirement in 1952. From the humble beginnings of one large truck to pick up the provisions from the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Ponoka, the daily vehicle maintenance and fuel service grew over the years to include a school bus, fire truck, ambulance, and a number of trucks, vans, and vehicles that were used by all departments of the massive mental hospital.
Some of the early drivers and mechanics based at this shop included Art Barnes, Reg Johnston, Sam Wills, Don Hill, Richard Stebner and Elmer Cerveny.
The hospital communication system
Nina Chalmers was the first person to operate the switchboard and information office at the hospital, and she held this active position from 1926 until her retirement in 1948. Over the years the communication system rapidly expanded, later being established at the administration reception building and operating a complete daily service of accepting all incoming calls, extending information to visitors, and guiding them to all areas of the hospital to visit their relatives or attend various functions.
The fabulous aromas of the hospital bakery
A.E. Thorn was the first baker and cook at the Provincial Mental Hospital near Ponoka, and would serve in that position from 1911 to 1938. In the wee small hours of the morning, the massive steel ovens in that busy bakery were fired up to prepare the hundreds of loaves of bread and other culinary delights that would complement the varied diets for more than 1,000 patients and staff each and every day of the year.
Hospital X-ray department was very important!
It would be Mrs. George (Louise) James, the wife of the local “radio man,” who would serve as the first X-ray technician at the hospital from July 1940 to April 1946. As the PMH grew rapidly, this vital department expanded quickly, with all patients and staff required to have their annual X-rays as well as others required on the request of the medical staff.
Other early staff members of this department included: Dorothy M. Burry (1946-1968), and Mathew Tharakan, with the long-standing able assistance of Winnifred Edney. The X-ray service continued for many years at the hospital, and then was later taken over by the community health system.
The hospital laboratory
John Onufrychuk was the first laboratory technician at the Provincial Mental Hospital, performing the duties from October 1924 to May 1946. George R. Watson came to work at the Ponoka hospital in November 1940, and resumed work on the nursing staff until taking over from Onufrychuk when he resigned in 1946. The popular gentleman worked for many years in the lab, was an active participant in the Alberta Civil Association, one of the promoters of the initial banking services at the hospital, an avid member of the hospital curling club, and he would raise his family on the grounds.
The Fort Ostell Museum has a wonderful collection of the early artifacts, photos, and stories of the Provincial Mental Hospital, and invites everyone to drop in weekdays and browse through the colorful and exciting history of our town and county. Meanwhile, the longstanding dedication and traditions of first class professional treatment, special care, and understanding for each and every client continues on into their 102nd year at the Centennial Centre.