Ray Marshall was a “what if?” kind of guy.
He was born into a farm family in Kettleby, raised in King Township, took over at an early age the family operation which included a chicken hatchery and processing plant employing 250 people. He lived his childhood and working life in King Township.
And in between his working life and his final years, Ray brought his magic to Barrie. He retired at age 55 and moved to Barrie so he could pursue his passionate leisure interest, boating. But retirement years weren’t idle ones for Ray. He joined the Kiwanis Club and met John Day and Dan Arnoldi and Les Cooke and a dozen other guys with vision. And because he was also a sometime artist, Ray also joined the Barrie Art Club. With these two interests, he also managed to skipper his 45 Chris-Craft through Lake Simcoe and into the Great Lakes. For boating was Ray’s great love.
It was early in 1970 when Formosa Spring Brewery was building its brew house on a farm on the outskirts of Barrie (now Big Bay Pt Rd and Fairview Dr) that Ray Marshall and a few others hatched up an idea. Why not stage an art festival; you know, invite area artists to show their work? Why not have it outdoors? Why not have prizes for the top artists? Why not have Kiwanis run the event and the Barrie Art Club organize the artistic endeavours, judging etc?
Why not, indeed. And so in 1971 Formosa Spring Brewery became the site for the first ever Huronia Festival of the Arts.
Winner of the show that year was a Newmarket artist, Edith Stankus. In June, 1972, the Kiwanis Club again launched publicity efforts for that summer’s Huronia Festival. The basement ball room at Ed O’Reilly’s Continental Inn was jammed with Kiwanians, Art Club members, artists and Edith Stankus herself who, during the evening’s proceedings, completed an oil painting of Georgian Bay, to be given to the winning ticket.
It was my first night on the job as the Barrie Banner’s new editor/reporter/photographer/layout artist/you-get-the-picture. First night on the job and two assignments: the kickoff of the Huronia Festival, and City Council. I left the first to be in time for the second, writing my initials on my ticket and passing it to someone at my table. Imagine my shock next morning when my table mate pulled up to the Banner with Edith Stankus’ wet oil painting resting carefully in the back of his station wagon! That marvellous painting hangs in our living room today, 32 years later.
But I digress…
Ray Marshall wasn’t content with two years of art booths. The Huronia Festival of the Arts became the Huronia Festival of the Arts and Crafts and moved to Barrie’s newly created Centennial Park where trees were little sticks and booth owners baked in the sun for three days. And the Barrie Kennel Club decided to host North America’s biggest dog show, taking over the Formosa location.
In true community form, Ray asked the Lions if they’d like to roll their food booth down to provide sustenance for those attending. And would the Rotary Club like to rent a stage and offer entertainment? And would the Y be interested in putting together a beer gardens?
And then with its location firmly entrenched at Centennial Park on Kempenfelt Bay, the art festival was growing into so much more and the phrase “Kempenfest” was born, some time around 1980.
Over the years Kempenfest continued to grow, as each visionary team added value to the weekend event. How about a Cross-the-Bay swim? Sure! What about re-enacting historical events? Okay! How about an antique show and sale? Can do! What about having the MacLaren Art Centre host an upscale food event? Would the Rotary Club like to move its Chicken Barbecue, Dooley Greer’s brainchild, to Heritage Park and add it to Kempenfest activities? We need a bus to get everybody around… to the dog show, to the fair grounds, to the barbecue, to the arts and crafts show. Maybe the city would fund that?
And on and on it went until Ray’s dream was like a ferris wheel, picking up ideas and speed every year.
This past weekend Kempenfest is said to have attracted 200,000 people who jammed Barrie’s waterfront, all hotels, all restaurants, and most parks to enjoy fabulous weather and a terrific opportunity to buy originals from artisans from all over Canada. Kempenfest is now rated as one of Ontario’s top outdoor festivals, rivalled perhaps by the One of a Kind Shows at the CNE, which attract many of the same booth owners.
This past weekend, as thousands and thousands of people roamed Barrie’s waterfront, Ray Marshall passed away, as Alzheimers and time sent their final calling card. He died at King City Lodge, back in the township of his birth, with his only child, Rema Thompson, at his side.
Ray’s loyal and participatory wife, Dorothy, predeceased him in 1999, after 67 years of marriage.
The family held a quiet memorial this week at Rema’s home in Aurora. Rema’s children and grandchildren were there. They shared funny and poignant memories; they reclaimed Ray from his vacant last years, breathing life into the vibrant father, grandfather, and great-grandfather they once knew.
And Ray? Ray Marshall’s vision carries on. Rema says her dad had an unparalleled ability to navigate rough seas. “It didn’t matter the weather, he was the most amazing navigator. We talked today about the storms we were in and how fearless Dad always was. He had an uncanny ability to navigate.”
He did, too. He launched his festival ship, he made sure it was well equipped on port and starboard, with a crew as diverse as it needed to be. With a strong anchor, no automatic pilot, no gps systems for Ray; he charted his course, and with one event has changed the life of an entire community.