New Fergus hospital well supported by communities

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Wellington County’s centennial year of 1954 saw a great deal of public expenditure.

The years of the Great Depression, and then the Second World War, resulted in antiquated infrastructure and facilities. Among the latter was the Fergus hospital.

Groves Hospital was 52 years old in 1954. In 1902 Dr. Abraham Groves had established his hospital, then called the Royal Alexandra Hospital, as a private business and a home base for his surgical operations.

Originally, it had been an adequate facility, even though the building was a renovated residence. In later years, Dr. Groves had fallen behind state-of-the-art hospital facilities, though he did his best to keep up with the times.

When he deeded the facility to Fergus in 1932, there were many deficiencies in the building’s structure and its equipment. Fergus council expended some scarce, Depression-era dollars in modernizing the hospital, but it continued to lag behind other health facilities.

After World War II, it was clear to everyone the existing building was hopelessly inadequate. Fergus council and the council-appointed hospital board made plans for a new structure in 1953 and, at the beginning of 1954, they decided to proceed.

The old hospital contained 26 beds, with facilities spread over three floors plus the basement. There were only two bathrooms for the whole hospital, one small operating room and another used for the delivery of babies. The heating system did not work well, and the electrical system had become obsolete. There was no proper laboratory space and not even a proper dispensary for drugs. Many considered the building a firetrap.

The new facility, as originally planned by the hospital board, would have 36 beds, a separate maternity section to deal with the growing baby boom, a major operating room and a smaller one for emergency patients, and facilities for an out-patient clinic.

The board, led by Fergus druggist Wilfred Ford, hired the architectural firm of Marani and Morris to draw a set of plans. They produced a design for a single-storey hospital with a basement at an estimated construction cost of $385,000.

The building committee, chaired by Eric White, made plans to raise the money. The hospital already had $217,000 on hand, most of it in long-term bonds, which White estimated had a current cash value of at least $170,000.

Grants from the provincial and federal governments would total about $85,000 so the balance required for the project, $35,000, would need to come from a fundraising campaign.

Reserves held in the hospital fund had come from previous donations and bequests, not from the operating profit of the hospital. The bulk of those funds had come from Beatty Bros., including  $50,000 in each of 1943, 1948 and 1949.

There was no profit: Groves Hospital had generated small operating losses  – between $200 and $2,000 – every year, and those had been met by Fergus council.

Those were the days before universal hospital insurance, and there was always a drawer full of unpaid bills of patients who were slow to pay or could not pay at all.

The fact that almost half of the hospital’s patients came from outside town was a longtime sore point in Fergus. The construction of a new, modern facility was the obvious time to broaden the base of support for the facility.

As building plans progressed, the hospital board requested an amendment to  provincial legislation that had established Groves as a municipal hospital 20 years earlier. The board would be expanded to include representatives from participating municipalities.

Consequently, the building committee assigned quotas to all the neighbouring municipalities, based on the proportion of patient-days their residents used the hospital. Fergus had the lion’s share, at $79,000, with others ranging from $15,000 for Elora to $2,000 for Arthur. White’s building committee expected to raise the money by a systematic canvas of the service area of the hospital.

The project received wide support in the Fergus area. West Garafraxa council, led by Tom Hutchinson, strongly endorsed the building program, and agreed to meet the township’s $12,000 share through taxation.

Reeve David Gray of Eramosa Township persuaded his council to provide half that township’s share of $4,000 through the tax bill, with the canvas there restricted to the northern part of Eramosa that used the Fergus hospital.

A surprise came from the county – a grant of $14,500 to the building fund. Cynics saw that as a bit of log rolling. Both the Mount Forest and Palmerston hospitals had plans on the drawing boards, and they would also be seeking money in the future.

Pilkington council initially supported raising its $5,000 share through taxation, but backed down after a ratepayers meeting. Nichol was the only affected municipality cool to the hospital project. Council there refused to raise any of its $15,500 share by taxation.

The hospital board planned to begin the fundraising campaign on Feb. 7, after church services. Informally though, it began earlier, especially in Fergus and Elora, where a number of $500 and $1,000 donations came in. Including the grant from the county, about $78,000 was already on hand before canvassers began their work.

Things appeared to be moving smoothly, but several wrinkles appeared during the first week of February 1954. First, hospital board chairman Wilf Ford resigned, claiming his duties prevented him from devoting sufficient attention to his drug store. Reeve Ken Denny moved into the chair, but there was some question about his status on the board, as he and Mayor Jack Milligan had been alternating informally as members of the board.

Equally important was a major change to the building plans. Initially the hospital board had planned to keep the old hospital building and use it as a long-term care facility. The architects had advised that a long-term wing on the new building would raise the project cost by up to $175,000.

Now it appeared that provincial grants were conditional on the old building coming down. After more discussions, architects Marani and Morris reworked their figures, and came up with a new figure of $84,000. That changed the picture considerably.

Several members of the building committee did not believe the old building could be renovated economically. Chairman Eric White told Fergus council the new figure made new construction cheaper than renovation, with the additional benefit of operating efficiencies. He reworked the figures, and came up with a new fundraising goal of $142,000.

The building committee discussed the situation with Fergus council, and all agreed to proceed with a long-term care wing, to consist of five four-bed wards. That raised the new Groves to a 55-bed hospital, plus space for infants. Only Jack Milligan showed some doubt about the long-term care wing. He expected it would be filled quickly with people who did not really need the care to be provided.

For such a major change in plans, there was little opposition or disagreement. The fundraising drive went ahead as scheduled, and the architects got busy at their drawing boards. Soil tests showed the proposed site, immediately south of the existing hospital, was a practical one. Eric White expected to have final plans on hand, and a tender call made, by March 15.

The Fergus council meeting at which the larger hospital was approved  also dealt with several other major items. One was a debenture issue for sewers for the town. The other was final approval of the Fergus official plan. The latter was the first document of its kind in the county.

Change was certainly in the air in 1954. The new hospital was officially opened the following year.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 13, 2004.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015