Written by GAC Staff
Guelph Arts Council’s Historical Walking Tours are back, back, back again. The annual tradition highlights Guelph’s rich cultural, architectural, and social history through six featured tours.
To celebrate this wonderful tradition, I (KP) sat down with volunteer tour guide Jay Wilson (JW) and asked him why these tours are important and what makes Guelph especially interesting.
Jay is an incredible wealth of knowledge and speaks so highly of GAC’s Walking Tours, the volunteer tour guides, and Guelph’s history. For a snippet of our chat, read below.
KP: Why is it important to keep the history of Guelph alive?
JW: It is important because it enables us to look in the rearview mirror and learn from our mistakes. We have to be careful with history because the person writing or telling history gets to tell their story from their perspective. It’s important to get different perspectives because you learn that stories can contradict each other, and it’s important to try to sift through the bias to find the facts.
KP: What do you like about the Historic Walking Tours?
JW: What I love most about walking tours is that guides get to make the tours their own. You can go on the same tour led by different guides and get a different tour each time. Each person gives you what they are passionate about and emphasizes something different, so no two tours are ever the same. That means as an attendee, you are always learning something new regardless of how many times you may have taken the same tour in the past.
I also love how the tours have evolved over time. They started in 1977 for Guelph’s 150th anniversary as a result of a talk that celebrated the history of the city’s limestone architecture. The walking tours have always been volunteer-led, and have evolved tremendously through the guides themselves. For example, one of our guides noticed a gap in our history, specifically in a lack of women and their accomplishments in Guelph. Since this realization, the tours have morphed to include some of those stories, and they will continue to evolve as we become more enlightened as to the true history of what we now call “Guelph”.
KP: Why did you become a volunteer for GAC’s Historical Walking Tours?
JW: At first, I stumbled across books about Guelph’s history and wanted to learn more. I figured a quick way to learn was through becoming a tour guide. In the beginning, I thought I was going to learn about limestone buildings and their history, but discovered whole new sections of Guelph that I didn’t know existed, and learned about the people and cultures who brought those areas to life. I was hooked.
KP: What is your favourite Walking Tour and why?
JW: My favourite Walking Tour is The Ward tour. It was my first tour, as well as undiscovered territory for me. I love the history and stories that have come from it. The Ward is rich in all types of stories and the tenacity of the people is incredible. You can actually find one of the oldest houses of Guelph in the Ward.
KP: What is the most interesting fact about Guelph that everyone who lives here should know?
JW: We tend to forget that Guelph is the agriculture centre of Ontario. When John Galt was responsible for developing the area under the Canada Company, he wanted immigrants to take charge of their own future. Galt’s idea was that if people owned their own land, farmed their own land, and could live off the benefits of their own land, then they would sustain themselves and control their destiny. With this in mind, Guelph is a food haven. It’s important not to forget this, especially as we look at climate and its effect on our environment. Farmers are both destroyers and stewards of the land, with stewardship becoming more important as we all learn the consequences of our actions. Guelph can lead in any resolution of the climate crisis; it’s in our history to be environmental leaders, and there’s no reason we can’t continue to be moving forward.
KP:Why should someone sign up for a walking tour?
JW: To hear history, stories, to be outside, and to experience the city at a slower pace. Everything slows down when you are on a walking tour. You see more, you look at places in more detail, and things that you don’t normally notice, you all of a sudden see. There is a meditative power to it. Walking tours give you an awareness and pace that you can take with you for the rest of the day, week or life. And if it’s raining don’t cancel, go! Rain is when the best tours happen. It adds atmosphere!
KP: Tell us about your personal business.
JW: Jay Walking Tours is my way of doing street theatre, with a nod to the olden days when a theatre company rolled into town, unloaded their wagon, and started performing in the middle of the street. That’s what Jay Walking Guelph is about. I approach each tour as an actor. I look for text that is well written, and memorize it. I take diary accounts or newspapers and recite them exactly how they were written. I breathe life into the stories and make history come alive. I don’t pretend to be the people, but instead tell stories about them. My favourite Jay Walking tour is The Unfortunate Man, a story of William Harvey from 1889. I won’t give too much away, but I let you come to your own conclusion about the mystery of this strange murder suicide story.
KP: Any new projects on the go?
JW: Jay Walking is morphing. Lilt of Laughter, Trace of Tears is a new series of monologues about lovely Irish tales. It has nothing to do with Guelph, but it’s a chance for me to go back to my roots. It’s currently a one man show that will be launching this summer.
To find out more about Jay Walking Tours please see the website here.
The 2023 Historical Walking Tours season launched May 7th and will run every Sunday at 10am until October 15th. Hosted by Guelph Arts Council and led by a team of volunteer tour guides, the tours provide an opportunity to learn the stories and history behind Guelph landmarks and popular walking routes.
Tours include Where Guelph Began, Slopes of the Speed, Altar and Hearth, Brooklyn and the College Hill, and Ward One Guelph. Participants will engage in an enriching in-person tour while hearing Guelph’s stories and viewing some of the city’s best examples of masonry, stone carving, and historic architecture.
All tour details can be found at guelpharts.ca. If you are interested in participating in a Historical Walking Tour, purchase a ticket online through the Historic Walking Tours Page. The cost is $10 per person with tours limited to 10 people. If you have a group interested in a private tour, please contact Guelph Arts Council to discuss details.