Written & researched by Trish Crowe-Grande, OMAH History Committee Chair

The Mariposa Folk Festival was spearheaded by Ruth Jones, an Orillia resident and significant figure in the folk music movement, who rallied her local community and Toronto contacts to bring the first festival to life in 1961. At the time, the only modern folk festival in North America was the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. With the support of her husband, Dr. Casey Jones, and local radio broadcaster and alderman, Pete McGarvey, work got underway to create a folk festival here in Orillia. A grant was secured from Town Council and the Jones’ pooled some of their own resources to help cover expenses. For the festival site they rented the Orillia Oval, a green space that housed the Orillia Community Centre and arena. Emerging star Ian Tyson designed a poster and logo.

The first two years of the festival drew crowds of up to 5,000 people for the weekend event, due to its reputation for good music and the popularity of folk festivals. In 1961 festival organizers turned down Gordon Lightfoot and his partner Terry Whelan for being “too commercial,” but when they were invited to perform in 1962, they were a hit with the crowd of 6,000.

However, in 1963 the festival crowds were drastically different. Crowds surged to 20,000, with many in attendance there for a party and not the music. Local police were overwhelmed and the town council agreed that the festival could no longer be held in Orillia. In 1965, two years after the riots in Orillia and one year after a court injunction that barred the festival from the proposed location of Moonstone, it was the beginning of a series of different venues and festival structure that happened over the next few decades. Estelle Klein took over the programming as the new Artistic Director.  

After being held in Caledon for a few years, the Mariposa Folk Festival moved to Toronto’s Centre Island between 1968 to 1979 and had a successful run at this location, thanks to its controlled access from the ferry and plenty of room to spread out the stages. It was the “place to be” for musicians and fans alike. Estelle Klein continued to innovate. It was during this time that the festival flourished and was consistently sold out.

1970 Mariposa Folk Festival Program

The early 80s saw the festival struggle with prospect of bankruptcy due to fiscal mismanagement. But ultimately the festival was “saved by beer” when Molson’s Brewery opened in Barrie with a large park area that included camping. They agreed to be the sponsor for five years. This was followed by a successful run in the early 90s, this time at Ontario Place, another spacious venue to spread out performers. But as the 90s went on, moving to other venues, the festival was bottoming out. Again, there were concerns it might not recover.

However, in 2000 the festival was saved again, due to the efforts of a local Orillia group who lobbied to bring back the Mariposa Folk Festival back home to its roots. With line-ups of well-known performers, it started to earn back its reputation of good music. In 2010, it was the festival’s 50th anniversary and it was a celebration.

2000 Mariposa Folk Festival Button

By 2022 enthusiastic crowds up to 20,000 people were attending on the grounds of Tudhope Park, with large video screens, campgrounds & other attractions. People were there for a good time, appreciating the music. It is a true testimonial to the legacy of folk music in this area and the organizers, performers and audience who have supported it over the years.

In June 2023, as part of their Speaker Series, the Orillia Museum of Art & History (OMAH) hosted Michael Hill, former Artistic Director of the Mariposa Folk Festival, and author of “The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History.” Mike shared his personal memories both as a young fan and eventually as its artistic director.

Click on the LINK here to hear more detail about the journey over the years of this iconic Canadian event, the music, and the legendary performers.