Modern-day Town Criers Bringing Back Tradition

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on May 17, 2009
Sam Carleton Town crier Bill Knepp uses a brass bell and his booming voice to perform ceremonial duties in communities in Ohio.

Waving a handbell above his white powdered wig and tricorn hat, Bill Knepp commands attention in Milford, Ohio (pop. 6,284). "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye," he bellows. "Presenting the 46th annual Frontier Days Parade. Let's hear it for America!"

The crowd cheers as Knepp, the official town crier, leads the parade perched atop his "Old Glory Mobile," a customized Chrysler PT Cruiser painted with stars and stripes. Every few seconds, he rings his brass bell and shouts another "Let's hear it for America!"

Resident Judy Poe was clapping from the sidelines during last June's parade. "That man is the backbone of this community," she says.

Knepp, 78, certainly is the voice of the community. He issues proclamations at city council and school board meetings, welcomes dignitaries and new businesses to town, and kicks off festivals and holiday celebrations clad in his Colonial-era blue knee breeches and waistcoat, white stockings and black buckle shoes.

"He brings a lot of charm to our small town," city manager Loretta Rokey says.

While the role of today's town crier is mainly ceremonial, the job was essential to spreading the news several hundred years ago. "Town criers died out after the Colonial period when reading and writing became more prevalent and print became popular," says John Karsten, 72, president of the 35-member American Guild of Town Criers.

"We're an attraction today," says Karsten, the town crier in Holland, Mich. (pop. 35,048). "We hoot and holler a lot and hold competitions."

Knepp hollers at more than 100 events each year in his official position as town crier for Milford, Miami Township, Clermont County and New Richmond, Ohio (pop. 2,219). He accepted the New Richmond appointment loudly and proudly last August.

"Valued citizens, notables and honored guests, hearken to my words," Knepp declared during his acceptance speech. "Be it known here and far from this day forth, your New Richmond town crier solemnly pledges to raise his bell high, echoing for all to hear of the New Richmond historical heritage, past, present, and future, so help me God."

Though his official messenger duties began in 2005, Knepp first found his calling in 1955 after renting a town crier's costume and bell and entertaining at a Jaycees convention in Columbus, Ohio. "It started as a lark," he says. "Now, I put on that town crier outfit and I am the town crier."

In his role, the Korean War veteran likes promoting history and patriotism. For each event, whether it's a July 4th celebration or a Veterans Day appreciation, Knepp does research and composes an original script typed in a flowery font and delivered on a scroll. He doesn't charge for performing official duties and donates the proceeds from private events, such as 50th wedding anniversaries and corporate appearances, to local nonprofit organizations.

"I tell people, 'I don't want any money, but I want a stipend to my favorite 501(c)(3) organization," he says.
Knepp's stipends, for crying out loud, have added up to more than $100,000, which has benefited the American Legion, the Milford High School Marching Band and the Miami Glen Performing Arts Center, and helped to buy a new ambulance for Milford.

In addition to serving as master of ceremonies at community functions, Knepp wants to take his 125-year-old brass bell and town crier skills from coast to coast.

"My dream is to travel with the Old Glory Mobile to every state capital of the United States and proclaim our renewal of the Declaration of the Independence on the lawns of every statehouse," he says.

That, he believes, is something worth shouting about.