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REMEMBER THIS: Big ideas and the early days of Kempenfest

Though it's been around for many years, the early days of Kempenfest were different

In 1969, a man from Barrie attended a festival of the arts in the City of Toronto and returned home bursting with ideas.

Snow and ice. That’s what Barrie was known for. Our annual winter carnival had long been attracting winter sport enthusiasts from all over Ontario and beyond. What if we could bring visitors to town in equal numbers during the summer?

Ray Marshall hailed from King Township and retired to Barrie. Kempenfelt Bay was the big draw as Mr. Marshall lived for boating. He also dabbled in painting.

Not one to sit still for long, Marshall joined the Barrie Art Club and then the Kiwanis Club. It was through his connection to these two entities that the big idea was born.

After Marshall’s fortuitous visit to that 1969 Toronto art show, he gathered a posse of Barrie Kiwanians and Art Club members and led them on an expedition to that same art exhibit the following year. The group came away with the idea that yes, this could be done in Barrie, and done in a big way.

At the same time, Formosa Springs was setting up a brewery on the 13th Concession of Innisfil Township (now Big Bay Point Road) next to Highway 400. They had 100 acres of farmland that they hoped to turn into a tourist park of some sort so, when approached about the arts festival proposal, Formosa was all in.

In late 1970, a committee headed by festival chairman Marshall, dove right into the thick of the planning and began producing the First Annual Huronia Festival of Arts. The planners hoped to exhibit and sell the works of some 175 artists and attract a few thousand visitors from the 5 million who lived in their target area which included southern Ontario and upper New York state.

The next phase involved promotion, promotion and more promotion. The big push to spread the word began in June 1971, two months ahead of the event planned for July 31 and Aug. 1 of the Civic Holiday weekend.

It started with a Kiwanis Club peanut drive. The intention was that every Kiwanis Club member who met anyone through this drive, or anywhere else, would extend a personal invitation to come to the arts festival.

Networking was huge. Television, radio and print publications in towns all over the target area were contacted and the committee members stood in front of countless cameras ahead of the event.

Two festival launch events were held with the second being staged on Ray Marshall’s beloved Kempenfelt Bay. During what was called a floating news conference, a boatload of newsmen from around the region were treated to a lake tour by Marshall, Ralph Snelgrove of Barrie Broadcasting, some Formosa executives and others.

Thousands did show up. That first Huronia Festival of Arts was considered a success and it continued to grow from there. During the next few years, the number of attendees were estimated at being between 2,000 to 5,000 visitors, depending on the weekend weather.

By 1975, the arts festival was joined by a number of other groups and events under the new name of Kempenfest. This wasn’t just a Kiwanis festival but a Barrie festival. The Lions, and Rotary and Y Men got in on the action too.

Art was still at the core of the attraction but there were plenty of other things to enjoy too. Antiques, regattas, classic cars, competitions, demonstrations and rides for the kiddos.

The venue for this new summer festival became Centennial Park where it still remains today.

The organizing committee of 1975 was hopeful that they might see their numbers double in three years. Today, it is estimated that Kempenfest currently attracts 200,000 visitors to the lakeside attraction.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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