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Town criers hold annual showdown

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Before the Internet, before TV or radio, even before newspapers, there was an earlier source for news: the town crier.

This past weekend, dedicated Ontario criers gathered for some competition paying tribute to one of the world's oldest methods of communication—and a wedding.

Once a year, the Muskoka Escapades of Town Crying Competition gives modern-day town criers the opportunity to compete for the highest honour in the business.

At this year's contest, which took place Saturday in Bracebridge, Ont., the winner was John Webster, official town crier for Markham, Ont.

Contestants are judged on the same criteria that was demanded of town criers several hundred years ago, says Steve Travers, official town crier for Barrie, Ont. and last year's contest winner.

They must get people's attention, be precise in their wording, stay on topic, sustain a loud volume in their speech, and have a dignified entrance and exit.

“If you skip in or you waddle in like a duck or something, they don't like that,” Travers said.

Getting attention can be one of the biggest hurdles. At an event in Kingston, Ont. a few years ago, contestants were tasked with promoting their home city.

Travers decided to highlight Barrie's Ribfest, which includes free beer samples.

Instead of the traditional crier's opening of “oyez" (similar to "hear ye"), he yelled out, "Free beer! Free beer!”

“I got everybody's attention,” he laughed.

This year there was a first for the competition—crier Athol Hart married Beth Sinyard, his official assistant.

Most criers have a “consort,” Travers said.

“We used to call them escorts [but] now we don't because of the connotation.”

Town criers have held funerals for former members but for most people in the group, this was their first crier wedding.

Fourteen criers gathered along the Muskoka River for the ceremony.

“We rang our bells and we all made a proclamation for them, saying that we hope they have a wonderful life together,” noted Travers.

The practice of town crying has been traced back to England in 1066, where it was used to communicate news or laws to a largely illiterate public.

Today, several Ontario towns still employ town criers to add pomp to ceremonies, parades, or other special events.

For most of the time that town crying was common practice, the profession was only open to men.

Today's guild still is mostly male, although it includes some women criers.

Travers also noted two of Ontario's most famous town criers, George “Washington" Jones and John "Daddy” Hall, were black men who established successful careers as criers after escaping slavery.

The Ontario Guild of Town Criers has a fiercely dedicated group of roughly 50 members.

“You have to be a little bit out there to be a town crier,” Travers conceded.

“My wife says we're all nice-crazy.”

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