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Ridgeway Crystal Beach High School: The “Biggest Little School in Ontario”

Since the classrooms went silent at Ridgeway Crystal Beach High School, life has moved on by moving around the grand old building. We acknowledge its there in passing. We may remember with a slight smile or a sigh, and then quite possibly, take for granted it will always be there.

But the recent activity around it — the purchasing and restoration of the Winger mansion next door, the removal of the little library on the front lawn to the left, the purchasing of the treed area behind, with the plans for residential development to ensue, and finally, in mid-March, the For Sale sign going up on display, front and center — has caused a bit of a local, emotional stir.

The word went out that the high school has been for sale but the recent activity has been driving it home. Life is moving on.

The 15.7 acres of property that the old school building lives on at 576 Ridge Rd. N. is owned by the Town of Fort Erie and is currently selling for $10,990,000. The Town has indicated that it would support a residential rezoning of the property.

But the school has been for sale since 2019, at the latest.

On the Town of Fort Erie’s website, there is a bidding page, an “Invitation for Expression of Interest”. The bid opened August 19 and closed September 20, 2019.

The invitation included “submissions from experienced persons/parties interested in acquiring, developing/redeveloping a surplus school site in the Town of Fort Erie.  Proponents are requested to outline conceptual development scenarios that are contextually sensitive and responsive to local/regional economic conditions, and that consider affordable housing.”

A Brief History

In 1909, high school began in Ridgeway. It was held for years at what used to be the Masonic Building on Ridge Road, taught by two teachers. In 1927, the School Trustees applied to the Township of Bertie for $132,000 for the purpose of erecting and furnishing the Ridgeway-Crystal Beach High School.

And so it was built in 1927.

Designed by the architectural firm, SB Coon & Son of Toronto, it was built by Avery-Shipp Construction also of Toronto for a total cost of $96,000, or about $1.4 million when adjusted for inflation since the 1920s.

The cafeteria was built in 1956. In 1960, an addition to include administrative offices, industrial arts, home economics, a library and more classrooms was added to north end. In 1966, science labs, a physical education wing and more classrooms were added. Finally in 1973, the south end was added. (background information provided by the Louis McDermott Collection at the Fort Erie Public Library)

Several will say that they got their chance to walk the halls one last time in May of 2009 when everyone who ever went to RCBHS and was still alive was invited to the 100th anniversary, a reunion for all. If you do the math, the 100 years included the years prior to the building being erected, when students went to class in the old Masonic Building, now known as Niagara Funeral Alternatives.

Ridgeway’s collective heart sighed with a heaviness the day the doors closed to high school curriculum in 2017. A small victory was won the day the school building was declared historically significant to the town. The document of Heritage Designation was signed January 22, 2018.

The official designation, under the Ontario Heritage Act, will require any developer or individual who purchases the site to maintain the entire front end of the building which faces the road. If a developer wished to knock down the front end of the school, they would first have to go through Town Hall and obtain written consent from a majority of councillors.

Teachers and Students Respond

David Fowler, a teacher I remember from the early 80s posted his short yet heartfelt words on Facebook.  “RCBHS was truly the ‘biggest little high school in Ontario’. It was, and still is, part of who I am. Sad, sad, sad.”

When I contacted “Mr. Fowler”, asking if I could quote him and inquiring where the nickname for the school came from, “We enjoyed the description. I’m not exactly sure where it originated, but it may have been with George Morrissey who was principal after Mr. Tritchew.”

Deborah Grimes was a great influence on the next generation, “I was a teacher at that high school for 26 years until it closed. It was known as the ‘biggest little high school’ because it was such a fine school. Sorry that it was time to close it.”

Katharine Carter’s words leave you with the best impression of the power that existed within those brick walls. “RCBHS saved my life! I came to this school in grade ten, full of trauma and feeling incredibly hopeless. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer, which was unimaginably hard. I was also trying to figure out who I was and where I belonged. Mrs. Grimes took a chance on me and supported me to believe in myself. She had such a positive impact on me and played such an important role in my life. Mr. Higgins let me play basketball and essentially became my life coach throughout high school. They believed in me when I wasn’t sure I even believed in myself. They believed I was capable of attending post-secondary education, which I had never dreamed of before then.

“Both of these teachers had a tremendously positive impact on me and helped shape me into the person I am today.  They are the reason I became a social worker. Today I work as a high school counsellor, and I hope to follow in their footsteps and make a positive impact on my own students’ lives. Thank you for investing your time in me.”

I myself, can say the school had a great impact on my life. When I was 16 years old, I got pregnant and tried to quit school. Tried. I sat in the Principal’s Office with Mr. Tritchew and he would not let me leave until I agreed to an arrangement. I was to finish that year, Grade 11, by home schooling. In the early 80s, home schooling consisted of getting classroom notes from my friends who had the same classes as me. He set up a tutor to come to my home for Chemistry as it was my most challenging subject. When exam time came, I took them privately in a quiet room in the school.

The second part of the arrangement was that I promised to return in two years, for my last year, which I did. Two years later, I walked into his office with a smile and the words, “I’m back!” During that year, all my teachers rallied to keep me coming in each day while taking care of a two year old at home. Several times, I almost quit. No one would let me.

Upon graduation, I received two awards, both for exceptional work and high marks; one for English and one for Math. I too, became a Counsellor and then a Freelance Writer. I doubt I would have done either if it weren’t for my experiences in those days.

Lee Siegel, a RCBHS graduate who returned to the school and directed, along with Sandy Bukator, five theatre performances in the auditorium, remembers the building well. “That school launched my career in theatre. I think we always knew it would be for sale.  But it definitely is a bit crushing to see the For Sale sign. So many students went through those doors and onto bigger and better things. But, the seed had to be planted somewhere — and it was within those walls. 

“There’s an old saying “you can’t go home no more” referencing to the things you knew and had. They eventually fade away. Essentially, the building is just walls and dirt. The memories and the people are inside each of us. I think the building, however, is just a landmark reminder of what we had. An instant memory.  

“We’d love to get one final walk through those doors. For some reason, you always think your high school isn’t going to close down and will always be there. But, as they say, Nothing is forever.”

A Community Wish List

Rick Doan, lifetime Ridgeway resident shared his thoughts. “Living on the road behind it all my life, concerns are with the density of homes they will put in that huge property, as we hear they are building on 40ft lots, which would mean perhaps hundreds of homes, with new roads through the property. It would be nice to see the old school turn into much needed senior apartments.

Others expressed similar wishes on social media. Seniors apartments, combined with affordable housing was at the top of the wish list. Also included was a community centre, daycare, theatre, indoor exercise, and a community garden. Several expressed if they had the money, or won the lottery, they would buy it.

It was no surprise to read how many wish they could take a walk through those halls, up and down those stairways, peek into their favourite classrooms — just one more time.

The building remains the largest, tallest, and “most significant” building in Ridgeway, according to the town’s heritage committee. When considering the grand RCBHS building, significant can be looked at in more than one way. There is significant magnificence in it’s architecture that cannot be found in modern development anywhere anymore. And there is, above all, within those magnificent walls, the memory of the significant impact on generations of students, their parents and the wonderful continuum of faculty and staff, over the 100 unforgettable years. As Lee Siegel expressed, “So, that building, with it’s chipped paint, the smell of the library and the basement art room, the basement gymnasium, the lunch room, all of those places are part of us, one way or another. I just hope that, whatever happens to the building, it doesn’t get knocked down and whoever moves in, understands those hallways and empty classrooms fostered a wealth of today’s successes, and they just take extra care of those memories” of the biggest little school in Ontario.

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