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COLUMN: Dave Town to share his love of history, Orillia with OMAH

'History can be so interesting and informative about the world today if people could just take the time to slow their brains down and think,' says local historian

Thank goodness we have art, music and culture to help us through this pandemic. As we go into a four-week stay-at-home order, we can still visit beautiful places online, listen to incredible music, and learn things too!

This week’s column will focus on the Orillia Museum of Art and History’s upcoming online programming for children and adults, and really dive into their History Speaker’s Series guest for this month, local historian and chiropractor, Dave Town.

Notice I put historian first! Although Town might not earn his living from being a historian, after receiving an over 1,500-word reply from him in response to my inquiry about his history hobby, I can attest to his overwhelming passion about local history, which goes back to his very first project, delving into the history of our local Orillia YMCA.

Let’s hear the story in Town's words:

“In 1998 I was Chair of the Board at the Y (Orillia YMCA). Poking around in the basement one day, I found a trunk of old photos and artifacts, long forgotten. Well, always having been interested in history I needed to find out about it.

"Then my father died, and my mother asked for memorial donations to go to the Y. It fell to me to decide what to do with the money there, which was a substantial amount. After considerable discussion we decided to use the money to ‘tell the story of the Y’ through its history, starting with that trunk. I then embarked on a 10-year journey of discovery…”

Town's journey took him through articles on microfiche in the Orillia library, interviewing surviving older Y members, reading minutes of board meetings, creating YMCA archives and exhibits to tell the story, creating a Skid Watson endowment fund, many speaking engagements, and culminated in the Orillia YMCA publishing Town's book about its history, titled Building Character. They sold enough copies to pay for the publication and then some!

All that rummaging, sleuthing, researching, and writing only whetted Town’s appetite for more! While he was at the Orillia library, he noticed a rough outline of the story of Walter Knox, Orillia’s great athlete.

Town continues: “A month after I started looking into those, a scrapbook of newspaper articles collected by Knox was donated to the museum - a priceless treasure trove of information that could not be collected now, because Knox changed his name every race to hide his identity, being a con man and hustler.

"I instantly realized an opportunity was presenting itself and dove into my research. It took five years, but I published my second book in 2014, fully 500 pages long, Hot Foot, the first ever published account of the life of a pre-WWI sports hustler. By then I was hooked on writing, and I’m at 17 published titles now, mostly shorter self-published tales of Orillia.”

So, what is Town's subject for the History Speaker’s Series? Town says, “This will be my fifth presentation to the History Society. I’ve talked about the Y, Walter Knox, the Younkers hockey team (Orillia’s greatest hockey team) and Orillia’s Civil War – the founding of Orillia and the displacement of the Chippewa to Rama.”

This time out, Town will be talking about his latest book, One Dead Cow.

“My latest book tells the story of Orillia’s improbable smelter. Hearing of the smelter’s existence I wondered why we needed one, given that there is no mine anywhere near here," he said.

"Pulling on different threads of the story led me to realize that this smelter had a huge impact on Orillia, both positively and negatively, even though it only operated for four years. The dead cow refers to a non-descript sawmill hand’s poor animal who was killed by arsenic spewed over the south ward by the smelter.

"He sued the smelter for restitution and to stop the pollution. Town Council was heavily invested in the success of the smelter and was put in an impossible position. In the end there are two legacies, one pro-industry and one very anti-industry, which are both still affecting the town to this day.”

Town will be speaking via Zoom on Wednesday April 14 at 7 p.m. The talk is free, although donations to the museum are gratefully accepted. To register, call Monica at 705-326-2159 or email visitors@orilliamuseum.org.

Any final words, Dave? Of course there are, he is a writer!

“As a general comment, people either like history or they don’t, it seems, which frustrates me. As a society we are now so inundated by memes and flashing notifications and bad, bad writing on the computer that we have developed these incredibly short attention spans and are so susceptible to sensationalism and misinformation," Town explained.

“History can be so interesting and informative about the world today if people could just take the time to slow their brains down and think. I have people tell me all the time that they don’t like history, but boy my stories are really good!

"They’ve just never been exposed to the kind of storytelling I like to do (and to read myself)," Town explained. "If you can get engaged in a story you will forget it is 'history' because it is speaking to your present world experience. You can relate to the experiences people had in the past. That is always my goal, to engage people.”

Also please note, Town loves to speak about his books, and his passion about local history. If you would like to have Town speak at your event, you can email him at lesdave.town@rogers.com.

Other than Town's talk on April 14, what other online treats does OMAH have up its sleeve? Slow Art Day, for one. Slow Art Day this year is Saturday, April 10, and it is meant to be a time to take some time to view some art, really delve into it, learn about it, and enjoy the process.

Of course, with the latest stay-at-home order, we would be staying at home looking at our own art this Saturday, but OMAH is coming to our rescue. This Saturday, April 10 at 1 p.m. OMAH will combine the regularly scheduled Quarantour (a guided virtual tour through images of some of OMAH’s favourite artefacts) with Slow Art Day.

In addition to the tour through the historical artifacts, you will have the chance to look at the one of the art pieces in the tour through the Slow Art lens. Your guide will provide you with background and context on the artwork, followed by a break to absorb the piece with the time it deserves.

You can call the museum at 705-326-2159 or go click here to book your spot and receive your Zoom link. What a fun and informative way to celebrate Slow Art Day!

 

Worried about entertaining the kids during a March break that is really in April and with a stay-at-home order in place? Worry no longer, OMAH has you covered there as well, with its Spring Break series of kids’ programs.

These programs are designed for elementary school aged kids, and you can sign up for one for just $15 or all five for $65. ($10 each or all five for $45 for members.)

Here are the topics:

  • Day 1 – Arthur Shilling: Colour and Character
  • Day 2 – Music in Orillia
  • Day 3 – The Group of Seven: Landscape Painting
  • Day 4 – Sports in Orillia
  • Day 5 – Behind the Scenes Tour and Activities

Some activities require specialized supplies, and you can also purchase those at OMAH for a nominal cost. For more information and to register, click here.

Thank goodness the Orillia Museum of Art and History has been able to keep going through this pandemic. Where would we all be, without it and all the other beautiful, creative, and informative spaces in this town?

So, stay home, stay safe, and enjoy your online access to these wonderful programs and more! We will be able to be out and about soon enough.

If you have arts news, send it to annaproctor111@gmail.com by Tuesday at noon to be included.