For town crier Tom Pekar, it all started at a wedding at Queenston Heights 30 years ago.
t was what he calls a period costume wedding. They brought in the town crier from Binbrook to act as master of ceremonies for the reception. “He did a fabulous job,” Pekar says, “and I decided that if I ever had the chance to be a town crier, that’s what I wanted to do.”
A little over 10 years ago the opportunity arose for the Virgil resident, when the city of Port Colborne was accepting applications for the position. Pekar applied and was offered the opportunity to be the city’s official town crier. When the plans began for the celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, Pekar joined the committee and offered his services. He became the “Sheriff” of Niagara, who did everything the town crier would do, minus ringing the bell. Since that time, he has been fulfilling that role in an unofficial capacity in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Pekar is a natural as a town crier. “I’ve always been loud, always been boisterous,” he tells The Local. “I’ve always been kind of a stand-up comic ham type of guy. As a teenager, I was a folk singer, and was in several different groups, all loose collections of people who never really took themselves seriously.”
“I’ve always had no fear of speaking in public,” continues Pekar. “That’s the number one attribute you have to have. Secondly, you have to love people, you gotta love your community, and those are things that I just naturally fell into.”
Pekar says the people he meets are what makes the town crier role worth the effort. “The best thing about the job is that I get to meet some of the most seemingly ordinary but amazing people who are the lifeblood of the community,” he says. “The volunteers, the unsung heroes. And I get to brag on them, these people who are not looking for any recognition whatsoever.”
His love of people was evident, as was his wily sense of humour, at the recent grand opening of The Scented Market on Queen Street. In front of a queue of over 60 people waiting to enter the store, Pekar stepped onto a bench, opened his scroll, and began by welcoming “my Lordships, my worships, my parsnips and my fish ‘n’ chips, on behalf of the Lord Mayor, Betty ‘Boop’ Disero” for the festive occasion.” His booming voice drew curious onlookers to the gathering of shoppers. And the Lord Mayor expressed no dissatisfaction with Pekar adding the “Boop.”
As much attention as his booming voice attracts, Pekar’s mode of transportation to most of his appearances draws just as many stares and waves. The self-confessed wrencher has restored and modernized an 1891 Morrison Electric car, the first automobile to run on battery power. Along with the Ferris Wheel, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat and the phosphorescent light bulb, the Morrison made its first big public splash at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The car’s name comes from its inventor, American chemist William Morrison. He set out on a mission to improve the storage capacity of batteries. To demonstrate his improved power cells he installed 24 of them on a horse-drawn carriage and attached an electric motor to the rear axle. “It’s built from original parts,” Pekar explains about his restoration. “It’s been on the road for 10 years now. Originally it had 12 batteries that weighed 830 pounds. I drove it for a year-anda-half, with 500 pounds of golf cart batteries, and then my wife warned me I was going to cause an accident. I had no insurance, no licence.”
So Pekar set out on another year-and-a-half journey to modify the Morrison so it could be insured. And to do that, he had to apply for a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). No VIN, no safety, no insurance, said the Ministry of Transportation. He rebuilt the frame, replacing the existing wood with welded metal. He added a second set of brakes and replaced the coal oil lamp with a full set of working LED lights and flashers. Seat belts were added to the bench seats and it was outfitted with both a speedometer and odometer.
He finally received that sought-after VIN, added the Morrison to his insurance policy, and hit the road with added confidence. Over the years, he also replaced the original wooden wheels with pneumatic tires on custom-made steel wheels. And the Morrison is now powered by four lithium-ion-cobalt batteries, weighing a much lighter total of 140 pounds, giving the car a top speed of around 25 km/h and a range just above 60 kilometres. That range is enough for two round trips to St. Catharines and back. The batteries in the car can be easily swapped out and replaced with fresh ones. Pekar connects the batteries to a charger he installed on the car. All he has to do is plug the charger into a regular household electrical outlet. Pekar made every effort to keep as many of the original parts as he could. That includes some of the decaying wood slats that adorn his “dashboard.”
It’s the same size as the classic EV (Electric Vehicle) and as close to the original as possible with the added advantage of its insurability. As such, he can drive the Morrison anywhere a car might be allowed, other than the 400 series highways. His insurance allows him to have passengers, but Pekar is quick to assert that it is not a car for hire, as he has been unsuccessful at finding a company that will allow him to add a commercial insurance coverage rider to his policy.
Beyond taking the vintage car on his town crier gigs, Pekar, a dentist for the past 39 years, drives the Morrison each day from his Virgil home to his practice on Merritt Street in St. Catharines. “The only time I don’t drive it is if there’s a thunderstorm coming, or if it’s less than 2 degrees,” Pekar says. “I stay to the right side of the road as a courtesy. I have my lights flashing all the time so I can be seen and recognized. Most people wave and say hello.”
He describes the experience of driving the open air EV as primitive. “There’s the wind in your face, the sound of the tires, and nothing else. The best way I can explain this is when you made the transition from your tricycle to your first bicycle, and you were going so fast you thought you could go to Jupiter, that’s what driving this is like.” By the time he arrives home each night to his wife Judith, Pekar says he is unwound from the full-body driving experience.
As for the historical nature of his Morrison, Pekar points to the year 1900, when New York City had 15,000 EVs on the road, including a fleet of 300 electric taxi cabs with interchangeable batteries. It begs the question about why it took another 100-plus years for electric cars to make a comeback.
“Two things happened that were the death of the electric car,” Pekar explains. One was the discovery of oil in Texas in 1896. The other was the First World War. Ford and Edison had teamed up to build electric cars, but when the reality of the war came along, and they had millions of vehicles to make for the war effort, the whole electrical thing disappeared.”
Pekar credits the development of a distribution network and the proliferation of today’s charging stations, pushed by companies such as Tesla, for the resurgence of the modern electric vehicle. Though it’s certain that any town crier working 200 years ago wasn’t driving a Morrison or anything other than a horsedrawn carriage, the 1891 vintage vehicle adds to the experience for his appearances in costume.
As town crier for both Port Colborne and NOTL, Pekar estimates that he is booked for between 40 and 50 events annually, most of which he does free of charge, as what he calls a gesture of good will to the community. And the wrencher is currently tinkering with two Model ‘T’ Fords in his Virgil garage, one of which he is aiming to convert into another electric car.
Soon, he may be arriving at town crier gigs in one of those.