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REMEMBER THIS: Looking back at the early days of wreckers (4 photos)

The towing industry has changed a lot from the days when only a small number of local garages even had a wrecker

After the first automobile cruised through the streets of Barrie, members of the famed T. Eaton family on board, things slowly but surely changed in this small town.

The few residents with enough money for such a luxury item also had to employ a chauffeur, not for show but for necessity as he acted as both driver and frequent roadside auto mechanic.

Next came the need for automobile garages with workers capable of repairing these notoriously unreliable conveyances. Gas pumps sprang up in front of in front of numerous Dunlop Street businesses and bylaws were forced to follow in order to regulate the practice.

Scrap yards collected the remains of crashed or irreparable autos and began to make a good business out of selling the serviceable spare parts from the defunct machines.

Closely related to that industry was the rising need for the wrecking car, or wrecker, what we are more likely to call a tow truck today.   

The story goes that the first one was invented by Ernest Holmes, a fellow who lost his Model T Ford in a muddy Tennessee ditch in 1916. A local service station sent help, but it took eight men, a pile of wood, some bricks, lot of rope, and the whole day to drag Holmes’ auto onto the road. He was inspired to find a better way and set about inventing a dedicated wrecking car.

In these early years, only a small number of local garages had a wrecker and those did a great business throughout the rural sections of the county. On plenty of occasions, they were called upon to assist in situations that didn’t involve any autos at all.

On a winter day in 1934, with the temperatures near thirty below zero, a Big Bay Point farmer took his horses to the well for water, but his large mare slid into it, back feet first, wedging herself tightly in the cold water. The neighbours quickly assembled, but they didn’t make much progress, according to the Barrie Examiner of Feb. 15, 1934.

“With long poles, pulleys, chains, ropes, etc., they erected a derrick. After several attempts to lift the mare failed, someone suggested getting an auto-wrecker. So George Sherring of Stroud was called and was on the job in a few minutes. Ropes having been fastened on her front legs, the crane quickly lifted the mare out and towed her to safety.”

From the late 1920s, F.W. Livingston operated a garage and auto dealership on the former site of the original Queen’s hotel on Dunlop Street East. His brother, Morley, was the operator of their wrecker and then, just as it is now, the job was not without danger.

Truthfully, the first few decades of the automobile age were a bit of a wild west. A patchwork of road regulations existed and, for many drivers, driving a car was regarded almost as form of entertainment.

Any Monday morning could see Barrie courtrooms clogged with drivers with no licenses, or poorly maintained vehicles, who had raced through the county until an inevitable smash up occurred.

On one particularly bad weekend in 1927, local police dealt with four crashes that resulted in two charges of reckless driving, one charge of criminal negligence and a drunk driving charge for the Toronto merchant who was found with a half-bottle of whisky and his head through the windshield. He was lucky to be alive. 

No charges were laid in the tragic case of 13-year-old Norman Langman who died doing something that was considered quite normal at the time. He and some pals spent the day at Wasaga Beach and then hitched a ride home on a bread truck. The driver had room for only one passenger so one boy stood on the running board while Norman rode on the opposite fender as they traveled along Highway 92 toward Elmvale. A rough patch of road dislodged poor Norman and he was killed.

Morley Livingston was fortunate to have survived that weekend himself. A crash on Burton Avenue was being sorted out by police as Morley began the process of removing the disabled vehicles when a Ford coupe was seen approaching at a high rate of speed. An officer tried to flag it down but the driver took no notice. Morley Livingston was forced to jump onto the running board of his wrecker, but he was nevertheless knocked a distance of 20 feet and was badly cut and scraped.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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