The history of the Huronia Regional Centre dates back to the purchase of an almost completed hotel building situated on approximately 13 acres of land at today’s Couchiching Beach Park and the opening of the “Convalescent Lunatic Asylum” in 1861.
This became home to people both with mental illness or developmental handicaps as the third branch of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (today the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health at 1001 Queen Street West in Toronto) for 9 years. It was closed in 1870 and reopened again in 1876 at the same site due to overcrowding of the other facilities. Within 6 months there were over 100 residents.
In early 1877, Dr. Alexander Beaton was appointed as the new superintendent. He was a dynamic pioneer who was twice elected president of what was later known as the American Association on Mental Retardation (.A.A.M.R.). Dr. Beaton was interested in the training of developmentally handicapped people rather than custodial care and, by 1888 a school was formally started.
To alleviate the overcrowding, 151 acres of land at the edge of Lake Simcoe were purchased in 1885 (part of our present site), complete with a stone farmhouse and some outbuildings. Initial construction included a female residence (opened in November 1887), a male residence (opened in February 1888), a central building serving as a water tower, boiler house and kitchen and, about a quarter mile distant, a small plant to create coal gas for lighting located near the railway tracks. The present Administration Building, added to the front of the existing complex, was opened in April 1891, at which time both the remaining resident group and the school was moved to the new site and the building at the Park closed. The park site was later sold to the Town of Orillia.
Dr. Beaton continued to fight for the rights of the residents by attempting to dispel the ignorance and apathy directed toward them throughout his 33 year career. This included his request to rename the facility to “Hospital For The Feebleminded” from “Asylum For Idiots”. In his time (1908) the resident population stood at 775 with a staff of 80.
In the period 1910 - 1926 a large program of expansion occurred. Additional acreage was purchased. Two 3 storey residences, a laundry, a new boiler plant, a new fire hall, a superintendent’s residence, a pump house and a curling and skating rink were some of the buildings added. The farm operation was moved to the northwest side. This included barns for horses, cattle, pigs and poultry. The facility was renamed the “Ontario Hospital” in 1920. This location was made accessible to Orillia by a more direct route along present day Memorial Avenue with the completion of the new Provincial Highway in 1921. By 1926 an infirmary capable of housing 200 was under construction. The population at the facility during this time was 1216 with a staff of 104 (1920).
Dr. Bernard T. McGhie was appointed in 1927 and remained until 1930 when he became the Director of the Hospitals Branch in the newly formed Department of Health. He hired the first social worker and inaugurated the development of new workshops for all the trainable handicapped. Even after his promotion the development of special education classes continued in the Orillia facility and in community schools across the province. A Training School for nurses was also started here in 1928 which ran until 1945.
Further growth occurred after 1930. Two - 3 storey resident buildings and a Nurses’ Residence were opened between 1932 and 1933. The facility was renamed the “Ontario Hospital School” in 1936. A 1 storey farm Cottage later used for respiratory treatments was built on the west side of the Highway in 1942. (This was last used as a supply storage centre for the Emergency Measures Organization of Ontario and was demolished in 1981.) More land was bought to the southwest in 1944 which became the last land purchase. A new 300 bed Infirmary (hospital) was completed in 1945.
The postwar era saw more crowding and a new Admissions / Isolation Unit was completed in 1955 along with the second phase of the Infirmary Complex and a new Steam Plant on the farm side to heat the facility. This is located behind the O.P.P. Ontario Headquarters and stll heats the majority of the facility today.
With more and more admissions the population rose from 2241 in 1945 to a maximum of 2948 in 1968 even though several other facilities were opened in Ontario. The old TB Sanitarium at Gravenhurst was taken over initially as a satellite facility in 1960 (closed by 1994) and a new Laundry Building, a Trades Building, and a Pavilion for the severely handicapped were completed by 1963. Our 2 original 3 storey residences were demolished in 1960 (Cottage B male residence) and in 1963 (Cottage L female residence). Our original gas house which had been converted to staff and later resident living quarters was demolished in 1997.
1967 saw the beginning of the first trainees in the MRC Course (Mental Retardation Counsellor) followed shortly after by the adoption of a Unit System and the end of custodial care at Orillia. Staff were now integrated, and as resident numbers were falling, staff numbers were slowly rising to allow for better supervision ratios and quality of care. The numbers of discharges to the community increased greatly.
In 1974 the Huronia Regional Centre received its present name when it came under the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
Although renovations of older space has been ongoing, the last new buildings for resident use consisted of a complex containing a recreational and a therapeutic pool which was opened in 1984 and a home originally housing multisensory handicapped people which was opened in 1986.
In the meantime, some of our land was sold to Georgian College and the City of Orillia in the 1970’s and in the 1980’s. The 3 storey Cottage M female residence (very similar to Cottage C) was demolished in 1985. With this our era of consolidation started even before the announcement of the first Multi-Year Plan in 1987.
Today, with our population under 360, we have converted most of our larger ward style living space into apartments, and our facility is concentrated at the south end of the property. Our farm buldings were demolished in 1993 to make way for the new site of the OPP Headquarters for Ontario. Our original gas house which had been converted to staff and later resident living quarters was demolished in 1997. Of the rermaining bulidings, Cottage C is now a building serving as a Courthouse and other uses, Cottage O is the OPP Academy, and 3 other large buildings are empty awaiting further plans. Our farm land is now the site of the Orillia Campus of Georgian College, the previously mentioned OPP Headquarters, our Heating Plant, some of Orillia’s small industries and commercial businesses and land awaiting future development.