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By Valerie Hill
Ruthe Cayley had many challenges in her life. Each time, she rose above the chaos, never losing heart, not even after her first marriage failed, a house blew up, her second husband died and she was stuck with an expensive property that no one wanted to buy.
That property would become a focal point in Ruthe’s life, one that evolved into a legacy: Homer Watson House & Gallery.
Ruthe and her husband, artist Tom Cayley, purchased the historic home in 1969 from a businessman for $55,000 with the intent of resurrecting the much diminished Doon School of Fine Arts that had been established years earlier at the home.
The gallery’s research co-coordinator, Laura Mabee, said Ruthe and Tom “always emphasized that it was first Homer Watson’s house and studio, and maintaining his legacy was more important to the secondary function of the Doon School of Fine Arts.”
Homer Watson House had been the home of the celebrated Canadian landscape painter who lived in the house from 1871 until his death in 1936. The painter added a studio and art gallery in 1906 and had been an artist retreat, with separate cabins.
When the Cayleys took it over, daughter Ella said, “it wasn’t functioning, there was no clientele. They came in cold and started it again.”
Tom was the artist and teacher while Ruthe ran day-to-day operations, keeping the books and modelling for the artists. For six years, the couple lived a busy but blissful existence and the school was a success.
“A large part of that was because of Mom and Dad,” said Ella. “It was their hospitality, it really was our home.”
Ruthe was one of two daughters born in Welland, where her father worked as a contractor on the Welland Canal. As a young adult, Ruthe and her first husband moved to the East Coast. Their marriage broke down, leaving her to raise Ella, a toddler at the time.
Ruthe returned to Ontario and was fortunate to be introduced to Tom Cayley, 12 years her senior and a fine portrait artist. Tom was the love of her life and together they purchased a small farm near Woodstock. When they learned Homer Watson House was coming up for sale, the couple put their Woodstock farm on the market and found a buyer.
Ella remembers what happened next: “The house blew up. The deal fell through.”
A faulty furnace was likely the cause of the Woodstock home’s destruction. Fortunately, no one was home. They eventually found someone willing to buy the property, albeit without a house and at a reduced price.
Ella talked about the incredible amount of work necessary to run the art school, from cleaning the cabins after visitors left, to scrubbing toilets in the separate washroom they dubbed Augustus, named after a 19th-century Welsh artist, John Augustus. Tom, she said, thought an art school washroom should have a more creative name than just John.
The school was successful but in 1975, after only six years, Tom died during an operation to replace a heart pacemaker.
The widowed Ruthe was soon struggling to maintain the place on money she earned as a receptionist. She needed to sell but there was another problem: there were no viable buyers.
Laura said Ruthe was distraught at what could happen to the place, but was desperate to sell. “She had applied for grants … but never received any. She always thought it should be classified as an historic site and argued against changing zoning laws to allow for houses to be built around the house.”
Desperation and a long fight with city hall led to Ruthe applying for a demolition permit.
“I’m not going to tear it down myself, I love the place,” she told a Record reporter early in 1980. But the 146-year-old house drew little interest other than from developers.
That demolition permit launched a flurry of activity, from the nascent Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee which started the process of designating the property historically significant. In 1981, the City of Kitchener purchased the home. The fight was over and a room in the home would be named after the Cayleys, recognizing their passion for the place.
Ruthe left her beloved Homer Watson House and moved to a Kitchener townhouse, finding office jobs to support herself. She eventually moved in with Ella, who describes her mom as kind and generous, a woman who shared Ella’s love of horses and passion for riding.
Her next big challenge would be her aging body, but again, Ruthe fought back.
“She couldn’t walk and she didn’t like to be dependent,” said Ella, who remembers her mother joining a gym and taking fitness seriously. It worked: at age 70, Ruthe had her daughter take a full body photo of her in underwear, looking long, lean and muscular, the body of a woman years younger. That photo eventually ended up on the internet — discovered when Ruthe signed up for a computer course and the assignment was to Google one’s own name.
She was, said Ella, unflappable and unfailingly patient.
“She overcame obstacles,” said Ella. “A lot of things happened in her life.”