It’s been great fun! 123 National Historic sights visited, researched and photographed. 43 blogs posted. Articles in Canada’s History, Country Connection, Grand Magazine published. Newspaper coverage too in the Kitchener Record and the Guelph Mercury.
From the stunning wall murals of little St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Brantford, to the eerie elegance of the Massey family crypt at Mount Pleasant Cemetery; from the medieval hulk of the Huron County Jail where the boy Steven Truscott was held, to the archological treasures of Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island, we’ve uncovered Ontario’s history with feelings of awe and wonder; gratitude, admiration and pride.
One only failed the test.
So tag along with me to the little town of Bowmanville, east of Oshawa. It’s the site of the former Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Walk with me round the sprawling site which also served as a Prisoner of War camp for high-ranking Nazi officers during the Second World War.
Chances are you’ll feel bereft too.
“The Most Progressive Facility of its Kind in Canada”
Constructed on farm land outside the town, the Bowmanville Boys School took shape in 1925. It was, at its inception, considered the most progressive training school in Canada. Boys aged 8-14 were sent to Bowmanville to be “reformed.”
Architect F.R. Heakes, an admirer of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was charged with the task of designing the 6 buildings that would make up the School. Wright had previously introduced America to the “Prairie”’ style of architectural design.
The movement sought to blend new buildings in with the natural world. A “Prairie” designed structure emphasized low horizontal lines, with gently-pitched or flat roof lines. Building materials were stucco and brick, in soft earth tones. All elements combined to mimic the flatness and openness of the American Prairie.
Popular in the U.S., especially in the American west, the Prairie style did not catch on in Canada, and then primarily in house designs. Few non-residential buildings bear the mellow “Prairie” seal.
“It was an ironic architectural choice for a locked-down training school,” I suggest to my travelling companion. “Wide open spaces and all that.”
Over the next 16 years, hundreds of wayward Ontario youth did “time” at the Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Figures don’t reveal how many left ready to re-join society as model citizens.
Operation Kiebitz and other Escapades
In 1941, The Bowmanville Training School moved into the second phase of its history. Now called Camp 30, the buildings would welcome more formidable “guests” than youthful pickpockets and vandals.
Over the course of World War II, approximately 800 high-ranking Nazi officers who’d been captured by Allied forces would now call Bowmanville’s Camp 30 home. For security sake, the Allies wanted to relocate these devils as far away from Europe as possible. The wilds of “the colony” would do just fine for this purpose.
The prize “guest” was U-Boat commander Otto Kretschmer. Between September 1939 and March 1941, Kretschmer sunk 47 Allied ships including convoy vessels which were bringing food and supplies to England.
War lore reports that on learning of the capture of his #1 U-Boat ace and his incarceration in Canada, Hitler ordered his SS masterminds to engineer Kretschmer’s escape. It is known to history as Operation Kiebitz.
With Nazi operatives passing information to prisoners in Camp 30, the German officers built an underground tunnel–15 feet deep and extending horizontally 300 feet beyond the barbed-wire. Inch by inch, the escape hatch was excavated.
Cups and spoons, pilfered from Camp 30’s mess hall were the tools of choice. An ingeniously-devised trolley carried the dirt up to the building’s attic. Not only was the tunnel wired for lighting but a ventilation system was installed.
Ah! German technology!
But with the tunnel almost ready to receive its first celebrity escapee, it collapsed. Kretschner’s Canadian visit was extended to the end of the war!
Operation Kiebitz was only one of many escape attempts undertaken at Camp 30.With typical German efficiency an “escape committee” approved all projects.
A visit to Camp 30 is not complete without mention of “The Battle of Bowmanville.”In late 1942, Hitler gave notice to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Allied Commandos would be immediately executed upon capture in Germany or other Nazi held-countries. Churchill retaliated by issuing orders that POW camps in Europe and Canada would now shackle their highest-ranking German officers.
Camp 30 followed orders and a prisoner riot ensured. Guards from other detention centres were called for reinforcement. They found Kretschmer and friends barricaded in the cafeteria armed with baseball mats and sticks.
The Training School’s Sad Demise
After the end of the war in 1945, Camp 30 returned to its original purpose and the school reopened. It remained in operation until 1979, then closed. More enlightened approaches to youth punishment had replaced incarceration.
Over the coming years, the site served a number of purposes: as a private, later a Catholic school and then an Islamic university. In 2008 the site was abandoned and has remained vacant for the succeeding 7 years.
With the purchase of the property in 2012 by a developer who planned to demolish the buildings for a housing project, local history buffs howled. A movement was quickly formed to save this chapter in Bowmanville’s history.
In an effort to be conciliatory, the developer donated to the town the section of the expansive property where the buildings were located. Efforts now turned to having the 6 remaining buildings designated as a National Historic Site.
In a 2012 newspaper interview, Bowmanville’s Board of Trade President went on record hoping that the designation would bring with it federal funding.
And sprinter Ben Johnson will get back his gold Olympic medal!
Almost 10 years later, National Historic Site Bowmanville Training School for Boys and POW Camp 30 remains in architectural hell, vacant, defaced and crumbling.
VOTE HISTORY and HERITAGE
With the Silcox National Historic Site tour moving into eastern Ontario, we’ve planned a stop in Bowmanville. I’ve done my homework and know that the former Boys Training School has fallen on hard times.
Still, nothing prepared these amateur history sleuths for what was revealed to us on Lamb’s Road just north of the town.
We see a property choked with weeds, garbage and broken bottles littering the onetime tended grounds. Graffiti mars the sides of every building. The blackened results of 2 arson attempts remain visible.
Those windows not smashed have been boarded up. Doors have been ripped from their frames, allowing entry and who knows what damage to the buildings. I hadn’t the heart to walk inside.
One lone “No Trespassing” sign mocks the reality of what lies before us.
Today, the Architecture Conservancy Board of Ontario, of Clarington Township continues to explore ways and means to rescue the Site from more destruction. Estimates run as high as $15,000,000.
Only a miracle can save this National Historic Site. Does the Canadian Federal election of 2015 hold the key?