As a young lad living with my folks and little brother Peter on the grounds of the Alberta Hospital, I will never forget all the many fun activities and events that were available year round for the enjoyment of the patients, staff and families. If we followed the rules and behaved, we were usually invited to join in, encouraged to cheer for the efforts of the participants, and there always seemed to be lots of treats to share.
My dad , Michael Sr., Bill Savage, Millie Holman and staff worked at the Recreation Hall for many years starting in the 1950s, and some of the many daily activities for the 1400 plus patients included movies, dances, exercise sessions, volleyball, floor hockey, basketball and special entertainment and concerts by local and visiting cultural and musical groups. If the patients could not come down to the Rec Hall, movies, games, music and special guests were taken to the wards. He was always pleased to tell us about the many talented patients who came down to the Recreation Hall on a daily basis, including a gentleman who could sit down at the piano and play many great songs and classics without a note of music in front of him. One day, the staff was busy out on the floor and they heard some great saxophone music coming from the back, and thinking that someone had left the record player on, they quickly discovered that an older man had picked up an old saxophone from the instrument cupboard and started to play. It turned out that he had been a featured artist for Freddy Gardner’s orchestra in the United States many years before, and would quickly accept the invitation to join the hospital band.
Right from the beginning, the Provincial Mental Hospital became very well known for its staff soccer team, which played in a league with other talented clubs from Wood River, Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, Edmonton and Penhold, and along the way would win many league and provincial championships. The big football pitch on the grounds was always lined with crowds watching those games, while the patients, staff and families were always welcome to have a ‘kick-around’ when they wished. Next to that field was the age-old softball diamonds, which featured daily games for men and women between the wards, a staff league as well as guest teams coming up from Ponoka and districts. Just around the corner, next to the big and little water towers was the hospital curling rink, which, as well as hosting league games for the patients and staff and Saturday morning lessons for the kids, also welcomed teams from near and far to play their bonspiels on the two sheets of always straight and very keen ice. One of the favourite winter pastimes for patients, staff, families and guests was skating for countless hours on the hospital rink next to the curling rink, where we could also play a game of shinny hockey, or frolic around late at night under the lights.
For all of us kids on the grounds, and those who came up to visit from down town, we spent many hours at a game of tennis on the fine shale courts, on the bowling green, as well as wandering around the nearby community golf course, where the patients and staff were also allowed to enjoy a whack and a walk. One of the traditional events that the Recreation Hall staff and volunteers looked forward to hosting each summer was the Sports Day out on the football field. The men’s’ and women’s’ wards came out for the exciting opportunity of being able to compete against each other in fun games of tug-a-war, jumping and all sorts of races, with everyone getting a prize, lots of treats, and the team bragging rights until next year. Another super attraction at the hospital over the years was the library and the canteen, with all funds raised used to buy books and special amenities for the wards. During Stampede week, everyone looked forward to a congenial visit from the queens, cowboys, officials and some of the horses taking part in the rodeo, with the courtyard behind the new laundry hosting a gala and rollicking afternoon of barbecue and games.
In the spring and summer many of the wards and their staff got together with nature at the hospital’s magnificent Camp Eden on the shores of Chain Lakes. As well as over-night stays, there were countless wiener roasts and delightful activities, as well as an exciting opportunity to catch a fish, go for a boat ride or hike through the wilderness. Doreen Scott, a long-time member of the P.M.H. nursing staff tells a delightful story about the many bus excursions that the patients and staff were encouraged to take, which often included a casual visit down town for shopping or bowling or to the many great recreation areas throughout Central Alberta. On several occasions, as many as 30 patients were accompanied on an amazing trip across the majestic Rocky Mountains across Alberta and British Columbia and on the ferry to Vancouver Island, where they stayed for a few days as the guests of another psychiatric hospital.
Another milestone of the internationally recognized Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka was the opening of the Occupational Therapy Workshop, where patients from all the wards were allowed to do wood work, ceramics and all sorts of other programs of crafts, while others also worked out in the gardens or various other hospital departments. Amazing skills were discovered, with many of the completed items displayed and utilized throughout the hospital, as well as sold in an annual fundraising auction to hundreds of guests and visitors. Later, a shop was opened in the old laundry building where items of furniture were fashioned by patients and staff, and were also sold to the public, or used to assist patients moving into the community. All of these extra activities and many more were the busy and ongoing social aspect of the first class day to day treatment and programs that thousands of patients have received for over 100 years, and carry on to this day at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury.