Author: David Mowat, President, 1999-2001

Publication Date: 2003

Edited: 2021



In March 1998, Ross Irwin telephoned to invite me to join the board of the GHS with the intent of possibly becoming president in 1999. I would become a member-at-large on the board with no specific responsibilities - just observe and participate. I had never even attended a regular meeting of the GHS but had expressed some interest in this organization that dealt with local history during a previous casual conversation with Rick Richards or Ross Irwin. Ross was concerned about who would succeed him since the new constitution limited the presidency to a three-year term. Many volunteer organizations experience similar difficulties in obtaining individuals to assume leadership roles. I had recently retired and was receptive to new opportunities for involvement and contributions to our community.


When I became President in April 1999, I was still quite green on many aspects of the GHS. One learns quickly when necessary, however, and I was very fortunate that the majority of the Board returned to give continuity in key positions. Moreover, Ross Irwin was a tower of strength for consultation and advice, and we frequently had discussions daily or at least weekly. It was also fortunate that I was retired because a lot of time was devoted to critical matters during these two years.


The President's Annual Reports during the previous few years emphasized, "The society desperately needed more members," as membership had been steadily decreasing in recent years. This concern should not be surprising. Competition for entertainment or enrichment is stiffer nowadays and has steadily increased in recent years (E.g. the River Run Centre and its numerous events, the Evergreen Centre, Third Age Learning, The Guelph-Wellington Men's Club, etc.) Thus, critical assessment and re-examination of our programs were necessary and fresh approaches needed. One change that we had not anticipated occurred in October 1999 when the Society was forced to vacate our office and archive of the past 12 years. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We found an ideal location at 100 Crimea Street with over 50 percent more space for significantly less cost. Parking is free and the potential exists for a long-term lease. Moreover, we now have sufficient space to accommodate our Board meetings and do not need to lease a postal box.



The quality of our meetings is the focal point for attracting new members and retaining existing members. The Board felt that our meetings were too late, too long and provided little interaction between speaker and audience (Little, if any, question period). The starting time for regular meetings was therefore changed from 8:00 to 7:30 P.M. To save time, routine committee or office reports (E.g. financial, secretarial) were omitted and left to the Board, except for special announcements and our Annual General Meeting. The guest speaker appeared earlier in the program with routine announcements later. Guidelines for speakers were set at 30-40 minutes, enabling an additional 10-15 minutes for questions or audience interaction. Setting stricter time limitations actually encouraged speakers to be better organized and spend more time in preparation. The earlier and shorter programs may have encouraged more members to remain at the end of our meetings for a pleasant social time and refreshments.


The delightful, brief, and local Historical Note given at the beginning of each meeting, instigated by Ross Irwin, was continued. It was complemented in two ways:


  1. Other members as well as guests made presentations.
  2. Several of these historic gems were preserved or recorded as a separate section in Historic Guelph.


The vital responsibility for the speaker program, including obtaining introducers and thankers from our membership, was assigned as a responsibility to the Vice-President. A program committee was named to assist the Vice-President, composed of non-board as well as board members. A single individual has limited contacts or ideas. Furthermore, a key in any successful society or club is to involve numerous members in the operation of the Society. It is also vital that the list of speakers for the complete season be known and announced well in advance so that prospective members can make an informed decision to compare with other attractions. Attendance at our meetings was recorded and varied from 60 to 95 people in 1999-2000, and 85 to 101 people in the 2000-2001 season.



Guelph: Perspectives on a Century of Change 1900-2000 was launched at the Bookshelf on December 10, 2000, shortly before the old millennium officially ended. This was our major millennium as well as 40th anniversary project. It is one of our Society's greatest accomplishments and certainly the most important undertaking by our Society since the previous book in 1977. This massive effort by a few individuals was initiated by Ross Irwin shortly after he became President of our Society in 1995. He also served as overseer and Financial-Marketing Manager of the project. Don Coulman contributed a phenomenal amount of time and talent as Book Manager. And Ken Reeve was great as Distribution Manager. The project had some bumps and near derailment along the way due, in part, to our own inexperience as well as the burden on so few people.


Under Ross's initiative, the Society was awarded a grant of $20,000 from the Advanced Funding Program of The Ontario Lottery Corporation. In addition, the City of Guelph supported our desire for an outstanding and economical (For the citizens of Guelph) book with a grant of $25,000. The Guelph-Wellington Men's Club also provided a grant of $300. The financial objective of the Society was to break even on the project.


This comprehensive history of Guelph during the past 100 years was an instant success with a flurry of sales before Christmas. The sales plan for the print run of 3,000, which called for completion over two years, was achieved in less than four months. Thus, storage space was not necessary beyond the printer. Obviously, we greatly underestimated the market and appeal of this new book. Plans got promptly underway for a second printing of 3,000 soft-cover books, to be available by early November 2001. Guelph's 175th anniversary was in 2002, and it would have been a shame if no copies were available with the heightened interest in history.


Another of our contributions to the City's millennium celebrations was an eight lecture series on Guelph's history, presented at the Evergreen Seniors' Centre. This activity was under the instigation and able leadership of Ross Irwin. Several Society members participated as lecturers: Ross Irwin, Don Coulman, John Keleher, Clare Newson, Robert Cripps, and Mary Mitchell.



The 40th season of the GHS was a particularly productive, newsworthy, and memorable year. Highlights were the publishing of our new history book as well as the gala celebration of our 40th anniversary. These occasions received rather exceptional coverage in the local press, radio, and TV. The Society's 40th anniversary celebration on February 6, 2001, was a resounding success. The event was very well organized by a committee chaired by Lise Simmons. It was a first-class affair, worthy of the occasion, held at the River Run Centre. The 112 members and guests in attendance enjoyed entertainment by Celtic harpist Mary Anderson and The Guelph-Wellington Men's Club Choir. Former Mayor and Councillor Norm Jary was the guest speaker.



Lyn Kannenberg, in his first year as Treasurer, had an extra busy year learning the new tasks in this key position with the heavy receipts and disbursements related to the new book.


Our Annual Tree Planting Ceremony in co-operation with the City Department of Parks and Recreation continued to be held around April 23rd at John Galt Gardens in Riverside Park. Betty-Anne Stammers ably chaired this committee.


Erica Morant continued to serve with devotion and competence as the archivist and also editor of our newsletter.


The Board decided to markedly reduce prices of all in-stock publications in order to distribute more copies and free up storage space. Ken Reeve did a great job of book and journal sales and distribution.


Seldom does a member step forward to offer services. I was delighted when Barbara Brooks volunteered to chair the Publications Committee. She did an excellent job along with her committee. The Verne Mcllwraith Award Essay Contest is our main avenue for historical research and subsequent publication in Historic Guelph. The monetary value for prizes for this contest was increased with a first prize of $500, second of $350 and third of $200.


Clare Newson continued to ably chair our Scholarship committee. Every year he gets letters of gratitude from some students.


In April, a busload of members and guests attended the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Norma Neudoerffer efficiently organized this annual social event. The Board expressed a wish for future bus tours to focus on historical or heritage interest.


Light refreshments are enjoyed by many following each regular meeting. Shirley McColeman along with a few helpers very capably looked after this service. Recognizing the difficulty in obtaining volunteers for serving and clean-up and to ease the burden for Shirley, the Board decided to eliminate coffee and tea and to offer only juice plus cookies.



We should be proud of the accomplishments of our Society over the past 40 years and of those who volunteered through the GHS to raise the profile of heritage in our city. It was a great privilege, honour and enjoyment for me to have been president of the GHS during the millennium year as well as our 40th anniversary year. I had a great Board to work with - dedicated, faithful, reliable, and hard working. I believe in turnover and new ideas and so limited my time in office to two years. We should not rest on our laurels. Much scope exists for further improvements in our Society.