Guelph's Heritage Guru - Gil Slelter
February 23, 2008

Guelph's Heritage Guru

A lifetime achievement award doesn't mean Gil Stelter is done achieving yet, writes Nicholas Dinka

It's not exactly daylily season, but even in late November it's easy to be impressed on a tour of Gil Stelter's gardens. There's the handsome koi pond, alive with plump, orange fish, and the foundations of a formal garden based whimsically on the radial plan of Guelph's old downtown. And while the daylilies themselves are in hibernation for the winter, their places are carefully marked with hundreds of little metal signs for each species and cross-bred variety, with names like 'World on a String,' 'Skinwalker' and 'Long Live Love.'

"It's all organized historically, so when people come to visit they can have a sense of the different crosses and varieties that have been created over the last century or so," Stelter said on a recent informal tour. "It let's you see how everything fits together."

It's a project that combines two of Stelter's passions. First, there's his hobby, the cultivation of daylilies -- he's an expert breeder, noted for being the first person to cross wild daylilies -- the kind that grow at highway sides -- with modern man-made hybrid plants, a process previously thought by biologists to be genetically impossible. Second, there's his previous career: prior to his retirement in 1998, he was a professor at the University of Guelph, an urbanism expert who's still known as a local heritage guru.

Urban historian with a sideline as a master daylily breeder: it may seem like an unusual cross, so to speak, but Stelter seems to be making it work. He's received numerous plaudits, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Heritage Trust in late November, which is given in recognition of his two decades of heritage advocacy in Guelph -- of writing articles, organizing heritage tours and hosting speaking events and working with city council on the protection of heritage sites.

There are clues to his double nature in his early roots. Born in 1933, he grew up on a farm in northern Alberta, about six kilometres from the nearest village and 50 kilometres from Edmonton.

"It was very basic, like something out of a different century," he says. "We still used horses -- there was no tractor until I was a teenager. I'd haul milk to the cheese factory every morning."

He says he was determined to leave the farm from an early age.

"I was interested in farming, but I was determined to become part of a different world," he says. "I remember one of my teachers early on saying, 'yeah, you'll be a professor some day. I guess I was different, a farm kid who was into books."

As an undergraduate at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, he indulged his farm-kids fascination with the "exotic other world" of cities, diving into Philadelphia and New York before moving closer to home to complete a PhD at the University of Alberta with a focus on urban history. He spent a decade at Laurentian before arriving in Guelph, in 1974, and finding a place that spoke to him.

"There's this combination of agriculture and urbanity in the history of Guelph, with the connection to agricultural science and education. There was a sophistication that came with that, which you see in the quality of the early architecture, the number of buildings designed by top national architects from that time."

It was only logical, then, that he adopted the city not only as a home but also a major area of research. Over the years, he regularly supervised graduate students who delved into documents like town founder John Galt's voluminous writings, and taught a, Reading a Community, that treated Guelph as a case study in urban history.

But his interests quickly spilled over the walls of the ivory tower -- into numerous speeches to community groups, various roles in assorted historical societies, and editorials on historical issues written for the Mercury. In 2001, he spearheaded the creation of the Guelph Arts Council's Doors Open Guelph, an annual event (still active) featuring public tours of around a dozen historic buildings and houses around the city. He's also been an adviser to various city councils on heritage issues, notably as an ardent advocate for maintaining the old fa├žade wall of the Provincial Winter Fair building as part of the new Civic Administration Building.

Over the years he's become known as a sort of guru to the local heritage community.

"Thank goodness for people like Gil Stelter," says Bev Dietrich, curator of Guelph Museums. "He's done so much to preserve the heritage and history of the place."

Sally Wismer of the Guelph Arts Council agrees, adding that she sees his role as a thinker and explicator as key.

"He has really looked at Guelph from a much broader perspective than just the details of what happened when," Wismer says. "He looks at things in the context of the time, but also the larger context of Guelph's overall history. Guelph's place in history is much clearer now as a result of Gil's work."

So what about those daylilies? Stelter first became interested in breeding the flowers shortly after his retirement from the university, when came up with the idea of interbreeding wild "ditchlillies" with exotic designer variants in order to improve the latter's hardiness.

"It's strange. If I had a PhD in botany, I wouldn't have done this. It's supposed to be impossible to cross a modern daylily with a wild one, because the number of chromosomes is different," Stelter says.

Somehow, though, it worked, and Stelter is now the father of 'Potala Tapestry,' as well as two other new varieties of daylily. Today, he frequently travels abroad to give talks on his new varieties of the flower. He also sells his special lilies to connoisseurs, and gives frequent tours of his garden.

Dave Mussar, the president of the Ontario Daylily Society, attributes Stelter's success to his innate personality.

"He's got a natural curiosity that leads him to ask questions, to explore, and to not accept things on face value," Mussar says.

Sally Wismer says virtually the same thing about the reasons for Stelter's success in his history and heritage work.

"He's not obsessive, but he's very detailed, thorough. You might call it perfectionism, but I think it's more a desire to get to the root of things," she says.

That almost compulsive curiosity shows few signs of waning. He's currently working on a history book on Guelph, as well as a series of essays on great world cities. For that latter project, he recently returned from a month in Istanbul, one of the cities he's been checking out as part of a project on world cities. He fell in love, he says, and has decided to name his latest floral creation "Istanbul Magic."

"Good cities are complex in that the past and the present are mixed together in them. My favourite place in the world is Prague, and you find in a place like that the past is never totally wiped out. Cities are layers of time, " he says. "Guelph is still young compared to these places, but it's evolving, getting more layered. Homogenization is a very powerful force today, but Guelph has done better than a lot of others at keeping its sense of self."

Cross a frail, overbred flower with its wild cousin, and you invest its gene pool with new energy. Preserve a city's history and heritage, and you might just be able to balance globalization with a sense of self.

"I know people from other parts of the country are amazed when they come to Guelph," he continues. "Like the Bookshelf -- these little institutions we have. They're to be treasured."

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