Alma archives in new home

By John Herbert, London Free Press
Feb 23, 2004

The former Alma College building in St. Thomas may eventually fall to the wrecking ball, but its rich history has a new home. The Elgin County administrative building is the new repository for photographs, minutes, student newspapers, yearbooks, blueprints, correspondence, course calendars and legal records from the international private school for girls that operated from 1881 to 1994.

The project was made possible with $25,000 in aid from the National Archives of Canada, the Canadian Council of Archives and private groups.

The Elgin archives will house the Alma College and Alma College International Alumnae Association collections after a six-month project to preserve, arrange and describe the vast collection was completed recently. The records were donated by alumnae in 2002. The archives will officially open March 5, but the public can view the records weekly Tuesday to Friday.

"It's an excellent collection,'' said Mary Virginia Towers, chairperson of the archives committee which hired Waterloo archivist Charlotte Woodley to pull the project together. "This is a real win-win for us. It adds to our collections a set of record valued in the community which will be highly used by alumnae, residents of St. Thomas and assures -- while the building may be in doubt -- the legacy of the school and building will live on.''

The records have had no permanent home since the school closed.

"When the archives were moved out of Alma College they were secured first at Central United Church, then moved to city hall, then to a shoe store on Talbot Street and then the Elgin County building,'' said Towers. "They were just stored in boxes.''

Among the treasures is a graduate book with signatures of thousands of students who came to Alma College from around the world. Towers said one book found while searching the boxes was The History of Alma College, written in 1927 by Rev. Edwin Wesley Edwards, who served on the school's board of management. The contents of the school's cornerstone, chiseled out of the foundation several years ago, have also been saved.

Elgin archivist Brian Masschaele said former mayor Steve Peters, a history buff and now the area's MPP, played a key role helping alumnae salvage and store the collection until its new home was found.

"In light of the tenuous future of the building, the records at least represent a legacy of the building and school,'' he said. "The exterior still looks like a grand castle.''

Alma College fell on hard times in the 1980s and several St. Thomas groups have struggled to save the building from demolition. Considered a Victorian treasure, the building has been badly damaged by weather and vandalism.

Last year, property owner Brian Squires, representing Alma Heritage Estates, offered to sever one hectare behind the school in a last-ditch effort to persuade St. Thomas city council to locate the Valleyview Home for the Aged on the site. When that request was denied, Squires applied for a demolition permit for Alma, but it was denied by council.

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