Rhino's Ramblings - The Politics Of Penneys

By Robert Thomas - Opinion/Commentary

Nestled in Moose Jaw’s Crescent Park there is a jewel we all seem to love and know as the Moose Jaw Public Library and Museum and Art Gallery but there was a time in the past it was ground zero for one of the greatest controversies in the history of Moose Jaw.

But it also known for one of the greatest political vehicles ever in not only the history of Moose Jaw but also one which drew national and international attention to Moose Jaw in days long before the Internet and social media made it easy to get your message out.

It was a $100 car, a 1971 Toyota bought at an auction, which in the summer of 1993 topped off a controversy at that time already almost ten years in the making. A car and its owner who drove onto the local political scene and was the catalyst to see $300,000 raised to help make the Library and the Art Gallery what it is today.

It was Ernie Penney and his infamous Penneymobile.

Ernie Penney with the original Pennymobile and the Moose Jaw Civic Center in the background

Ernie Penney with the original Pennymobile and the Moose Jaw Civic Center in the background

And just how an unemployed farmer, a single dad with five children, burst onto the local political scene is a story in itself. It is a story which only could happen in Moose Jaw.

The 1980’s were the start of some very tough times in what was back then called the Band City. High interest rates coupled with low commodity prices had hit Moose Jaw hard and there was very little extra money to be had.

Former Mayor Herb Taylor, during his term in office, had passed a resolution to build on and reconstruct the present Moose Jaw Public Library as well as create the new Museum and Art Gallery only to see a later Council lean towards building a new facility elsewhere and allowing the diamond of Crescent Park to deterioate.

In response former Mayor Taylor had come out with a petition and forced the issue on the rebuild in Crescent Park much to the chagrin of the other side and now there was the proviso that the community needed to raise $300,000 as their share for the facility.

You had a builders group - the Foundation For The Centre In The Park - tasked with raising the cash which despite this committee’s feelings was not easy.

“They thought they could raise it all at one gala or very quickly,” Ernie Penney said as we sat down for coffee.

“It wasn’t easy in those days. The economy was in one of the longest downswings the city up to that time had ever experienced,” Ernie said adding it was the days of the Big Box store retreat from the Band City. Eatons, MacLeods and Woolworths had pulled out and finding a job was difficult.

The Penny Project started by the Foundation had hit only 300,000 in late November 1992 and with it so did the entire $300,000 fundraising campaign,

Either out of desperation, or pure genius, the Foundation called out their secret weapon the unemployed Ernie Penney to come and take over the Penny Project and hopefully create some momentum in what was quickly grinding to a halt.

Ernie had been active in the community having taken over setting up the Terry Fox Run as well as heavily involved with the Optimist Club.

“I saw controversy involved here and really wanted to stay an arms length away from it. Because of the controversy I was leery to get involved,” Ernie said.

But just before 1992 was ended Ernie found himself the chair of the renamed Penney Project in hopes of revitalizing the campaign and with it the overall fundraising push towards the $300,000.

What the reluctant Ernie did once he became chairman of the Penney campaign was in fact a miracle in the days where there was no social media, email or the Internet. But somehow ths unemployed single farmer with five young children managed to pull off one of the greatest media campaigns with no formal training in the good old days of the newspaper.

I personally remember being at Council one night and one of the aldermen had quipped about the Foundation’s need to start saving their pennies and there we were a few weeks later with Ernie at the helm.

So there I was in early 1993 writing my first story about this guy named Ernie Penney out trying to raise pennies in a project and like so many in Moose Jaw trying my best not to shake my head about how silly this was all sounding.

It reeked of desperation and to be honest even amongst the media there were more than a few opposed to the entire idea - not just about Ernie’s involvement - but the entire plan to restore and expand the Crescent Park facilities.

So there I was in January 1993 speaking to Ernie doing my best to look serious and help this guy out in a controversy many thought he was way over his head in.

Despite the naysayers, the hecklers and those who just thought Ernie was crazy to do what he was doing at the time somehow he continued. Over the weeks and months what Ernie did mostly single-handedly was even more than the recent Moose War between Mac and that silver hood ornament standing out in Norway. What he did was create a lot of positive feedback for this community as he worked tirelessly to complete his goal.

Ernie Penney points out the speech given by MP Rod LaPorte in the House of Commons

Ernie Penney points out the speech given by MP Rod LaPorte in the House of Commons

First Ernie started with the newspapers as he slowly garnered stories to support the campaign each time having to come up with a gimmick to deserve the press.

There was the vault where the 300,000 plus pennies were in and to add excitement there was the addition of the fire bell from the old fire hall on Fairford Street where if you donated pennies at the vault you got to ring the bell.

And yes there really was a vault in an old trust company down on Main Street which had no tenants so it was donated by Jim Thorn to give the Foundation a Main Street office and exposure.

The pennies started to pour in as Ernie went out with news release after news release and even more gimmicks to keep the campaign alive in the media and keep people not only donating but on the side of the project.

Ernie would end up not only garnering local media attention but soon you had the Regina media looking into the story. There was the Leader Post and then the television appearances with first the late great Johnny Sandison and later the CBC.

Media attention grew as Ernie participated in a phone in part of the Dini Petty Show, a now defunct nationally broadcast talk show, in March 1993.

Then came the NDP Member of Parliament Rod LaPorte who gave a speech about the Penney Project to the House of Commons. It might not sound like too much but they also interrupted the regular programming on 800 CHAB to bring the speech live.

Following the LaPorte speech Ernie received two two litre bottles full of change from MPs of all Parties in the House of Commons to help out with the project.

With that media feat now over Ernie wracked his brain and on March 26, 1993 recorded another media coup as he had a local armoured car service drop off the precious cargo of pennies to the vault.

He went on to appear in the Canadian Numastic Associations Journal and drew in more media attention and donations to his project.

Then to top things off an MP Robert Kaplan wanted to take the penny out of circulation and Ernie got into a debate with the MP with you guessed it the importance of the penny. The debate ended up hitting the wire service and Ernie once again had national news coverage for the project and Moose Jaw.

It was about this time that the ever watchful Ernie would see a news report about a Button Man. The Button Man was a man who suffered from insomnia and to help cure it he started gluing buttons to things including his car. It was a eureka moment as Ernie thought he could do the same thing with a car and pennies.

So he bought the Toyota Corolla and got himself $200 in shiny new pennies and with his five kids started to glue them on to the car.

“I did the hood first and thinkig this is going to take very long and then after two days found out I was wrong. It ended up taking up most of my time for the next three months.”

Ernie had to learn by trial and error on how to properly apply pennies to a car without having glue stick your fingers together. There was no handbook to learn this skill from.

It took about $170 in bright new 1992 pennies to cover the car with $30 left as replacements for those that fell off, were stolen or ended up buying drinks at 7-11.

Moose Jaw Public Library - Photo By Roxanne Ashe - Virtual Interiors Photography

Moose Jaw Public Library - Photo By Roxanne Ashe - Virtual Interiors Photography

The car itself also was a target to the controversy surrouding the Library and Museum and Art Gallery project.

“Did I take the heat? you had the naysayers telling you, you are going to jail for taking pennies out of circulation…I called the Mint and they said you are safe enough we have people sealing them in celluloid and we don’t go after them,” Ernie said, adding “it was all about making people laugh.”

Then in early May the entire campaign looked about over as the free rent for the Foundation and the vault for the donation of the pennies was rented and the Foundation with no place to safely store the pennies voted to shut the Penny Project down.

This is where the quick witted Ernie managed to convince the board to allow him the opportunity to find another safe place to store the pennies plus he had a car about to launch into the campaign. It did not take very long to find a new location just across the street at another former Trust but there was a catch.

The buiding was already rented but the tenants said it was OK for the Foundation to use the vault but they did not want to see people coming in to make a donation. It was here Ernie somehow knew to save the campaign and help collect the money the Penneymobile was the answer.

So when the day came to move the pennies from one vault to another Ernie made it yet another news event as he found enough donated five gallon pails to haul the pennies to the new vault which ended up just being across Main Street. Ernie even kept track of the number of five gallon pails needed - 25 - and their weight - 165 pounds - to transfer the pennies to there new super secret vault.

So where was this notorious undisclosed location Ernie had found?

“It was the camaign office for the Reform Party and they said we could use the vault but they didn’t want people walking through there. They had yet to select a candidate but they had a local office to organize and spread the word,” Ernie said.

At the time of the first appearance of the Penneymobile in August there were about 640,000 pennies collected but in just over a month the amount had grown to 826,285. The Penneymobile was making its mark.

By mid October the millionth penny was collected and as unlikely as it seems the good press and energy Ernie managed to garner with his wits and determination meant the other main campaign to collect an additional $290,000 was also nearing its completion.

A single gala and auction in one night managed to bring in an incredible $10,000.

“The Penney Project was the catalyst for the public portion of the fundraising campaign. With all of the controversy going on it would have been a failed venture if not for the upbeat and fun atmosphere created by the Penney Project,” Ernie said.

It is something journalists of the day and many others would agree on. The Penney Project and Ernie willingly taking it on despite the controversy kept the Foundation’s goal advancing at a time it could have easily failed.

Asked about the number of hours Ernie put into the Penney Project he said it is almost countless.

“The better question and easier to count are the hours I didn’t put into it. You lived it. It seemed like everyday you did a twist and at the same time I was looking for a job at a time when there were no jobs to be had.”

Following reaching his goal Ernie left the Penney Project to the Foundation who quickly found out no bank wanted that many unrolled pennies as the time and cost to roll them would be astronomical.

The solution came from the Valley View Centre where two cottages of residents took up the challenge and spent days counting out the pennies and rolling them.

Ernie would drop in and watch the Valley View residents meticulousy count out and roll out the pennies where he would hear one positive thing about it all never ever reported in the media before. The entire process was therapeutic to the residents involved.

“I was told it gave them something to do and their meds dropped because it gave them a purpose.”

Today the original Penneymobile sits on Ernie’s farm five miles outside of Moose Jaw the feat it pulled off during the Summer and Fall of 1993 in many people’s minds forgotten. The last time it ran was 2001 when it appeared at the Cathedral Village Arts Festival in Regina.

Invitations to more arts festivals all across North America and an invite to the Burning Man Festival were amongst its accomplishments.

I remember one time speaking to someone just over 30 who remembered reading more books because of Ernie and his Penneymobile and being told “that was when Ernie was cool.”

I can remember myself mentally correcting his grammar and thinking “no, Ernie is cool.”

“Did I take heat

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