direct mail, Economics, Marketing, Media, USPS

The Last Post

This is my last post on USPS performance. If you are in the direct marketing or direct mail business, you have seen these before, but unless things stabilize, I don’t want to report, thanks.

The USPS Postal Regulatory Commission has just released the latest Revenues, Pieces and Weights quarterly report. They call it FY Q1/2020.This covers October 1 to December 31, 2019.

Cutting to the chase, I highlight these numbers:
1. First Class revenues are off $161 million, down 2.3% just for the quarter. This was supposed to be the Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and holiday greetings season.
2. Direct Mail or “Marketing Mail” as they have renamed it, down $252 million, or off 5.4% during what was traditionally a good season.
3. Direct mail volume for the quarter was off 1.7 billion pieces…down 7.9%. Hello??
4. Periodical mail continues its slide, revenues off 7.7%, volumes off 7.4%
5. Competitive Packages and Parcel mail, revenues up $137 million, or 2.1%, but quantities down 68 million pieces, off 4.0%.

I suppose I am naiively conservative, but I really expected for this past quarter to shine, and I have been rudely shaken to grasp what everyone else has been saying for years.

On an annual basis, the numbers are no more encouraging. I have created the chart below, converting the USPS fiscal year reports to normal business calendar years: January to December.

Compared to 2018, here are a few highlights about 2019 volumes:
1. First Class revenues off 2.2%; pieces off 3.4%
2. Direct mail revenues off 3.7%; pieces off 5.6%
3. Packages and Parcels revenues up 3.5%; pieces down 2.8%

Clearly, email, chat, web, and social media has displaced the need to use the mail. The only beneficiary in this trend is the package delivery business, which the USPS has carefully cultivated, though the decline in pieces is still a concern.

If there is any bright spot in this numbers soup, it might be that the direct marketers who mail to live know what they are doing; that it’s the small local businesses which used to mail have opted for web and social media instead.

We’ll see, but unless they do, this is my last post on the USPS.

Thanks for reading and sharing.  If you are in the DM business, and have an alternative observation to make, I would love to hear it!

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink 2

The Delhi Arena, In An Uncommon Quiet Moment

Down at the rink there was a constant stream of guys from youngsters to teens who slogged in and out, all winter, with bags of equipment, tapes, pucks, pads, skates and sticks.  They came at all the hours of the day and night.

In this small hockey-crazy town, how did I end up in the figure-skating club?

Of all the gifts my parents bestowed, this was the one that took the longest to understand.  But whether it was their intention to produce a figure skater, or just to keep me occupied, I eventually saw the light.  And it was dazzling.

Barbara Ann Scott, 1948 Olympic Gold Medalist for Canada

My parents moved to Delhi in 1948 and in a short time took a lead role in starting the Delhi Figure Skating Club. It was the same year Canada’s Sweetheart, Barbara Ann Scott, won the Olympics. This may have been Dad’s idea, but Mom would have pushed him along, and with the help of those many post-war friends who landed in this small tobacco-growing community, the DFSC was born.  It drew widespread endorsement, especially by parents whose daughters couldn’t play hockey.   Within a couple of years there was a long list of members aged 7-70 who came to the rink on Wednesdays and Saturdays to cut figure 8s, do steps, spins and jumps and dance in wavy processions around the rink.  You might say it was a little Arthur Murray mixed up with some chilly ballet.

CCM skates, built tough for hockey.

While all my friends went the hockey route, I went figure skating, primarily because it was my ride home.  So, I owned a pair of black, shin-high laced skates with long, slim silver blades with chiseled picks on the toes.  My buds all had CCM hockey skates: black with brown trim, yellow laces, reinforced tendon guards, and wide, hard, puck-stopping steel blades riveted into the soles. Their scarred and dented toes resembled miners’ helmets. Mine shone like OPP boots.  There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two sports.

Or could there?

The girls came in numbers: a serendipitous awakening.

In fact, I discovered in figure skating that for every boy there were at least five girls. This may have been the unintended consequence of my membership, but it was a serendipitous awakening that I have never regretted, much less forgotten.

In the earliest of my stumbling skating career as a Junior, I wandered around crowds of other newbies on the ice, learning to push out for forward and butt-wiggle for reverse.  Once ice-friendly we graduated to Intermediates where we attempted three-turns and hops like little bunnies in the snow.  We raised our legs and arms for spirals, imitating clumsy birds landing on the feeder.  I perfected the nose-plant.

Paul Rapai, Marion Pitts, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley nailed it.

In the midst of my imperfect executions however, there were some real stars.  Paul Rapai, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley, Marion Pitts, Jack Kellum, Mary Ann Coyle, Nora Marie VanHove–these older kids were excellent skaters. Gifted with balance, strength and grace, they captivated their audience, both those of us on the fringes, and the adoring crowds on the benches.  They had nailed it.

But as a 12-year-old, I found the boy numbers had thinned, my skating buds had evaporated to the hockey track, and I was accompanied by a few guys who hung on, to witness like I did, that we were surrounded by girls. It was a stunning, magical, delirious moment for an addled kid who until then had been happiest with a pellet gun in the woods.

The girls always dressed up for figure skating.  They wore colourful toques, scarves, furry ear muffs, white gloves or mitts, smart tunics and on occasion, impossibly short skirts and tanned tights.  They had immaculate white skates with bows or jingle bells laced into the toes.  To a one, they had fresh rosy cheeks and bright eyes, lovely curls and some even sported earrings.  In the middle of a cold grey winter I had somehow stumbled into a warm, sunny bakeshop at Easter.

Chris Brown, Bunny Klein. Boys came at premium in the DFSC.

The task of serious figure skating still advanced however.  We were now instructed in drawing crisp, neat figure 8s on our outside and inside edges.  My 8s looked like shaky ampersands. We learned to launch into the air with 3-jumps.  Mine looked like 4s and scratchy 5s.  A simple cutback into a spin left me doodling aimlessly, slowing to a halt after one rotation.  In short, I was a figure skating klutz.

And I was treated that way, pretty much.  But still there were high points.  In the annual competitions I could draw a bronze medal for third place because there were only two other guys in the field.  But best of all, I was indispensable as a dance partner.  We needed boys to partner with girls to perform dances.  So I may have been a solo wash-out, but I truly learned to deliver a passable Dutch Waltz, a Swing Dance, or my favourite, the Canasta Tango.

These dances guaranteed a pairing, arm in arm, hand in hand, eye to eye, with some of the prettiest girls Delhi had.  We strode around the ice to orchestra tapes of Perfidia, Blue Moon, Wonderful Copenhagen… it was surreal, exciting and riveting all at once.  While I may not have ever shared a social word with these girls at school, on the ice it was a joint challenge to perform, and that seemed the winning ticket.

While my hockey friends were scrambling and whooping around the ice like scrappy junkyard dogs, slamming the boards and crossing sticks, I was gliding along smooth arcs, laughing and talking our way through a complicated foot-move in time to Andre Kostelanetz.  While the guys were groaning in the sweaty change rooms breathing the high-sulphur coal-heated air, I was enchanted by the occasional wafts of Breck shampoo, Noxzema and Juiceyfruit gum.   How bad was that?

The ice carnival, exciting, enchanting, memorable.

The climax of the skating season however was the Ice Carnival.  This was the DFSC’s presentation to the town.  It was a top-tier war effort, and in addition to its spectacular performance, the carnival was, to many of us, the most exciting and enchanting event of the season.

More, next week.

 

 

 

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Cars, childhood, Culture, Government, Legal

The Nose Count

“Opinions are like noses: everybody’s got one,” which is what one of my best bosses ever advised me. And so it is, the 2nd Appellate justices reviewed the Libertyville appeal, buttressed by eloquent oral arguments, and came to the opinion: “No dice.”

Our appeal to reverse the Lower Court Judge Michael Fusz’ ruling was refused. The ruling stands. The Archdiocese of Chicago may now expect the Village to re-zone the 40-acre lot on Butterfield for residential building, and along with that, allow the final plats to be submitted and approved for building the 148-units which were proposed in 2017.

This of course is subject to the Village Board’s acceptance of the decision, which will be deliberated in the next few weeks.

There is no upside to predicting future events. However, if there is an upside of any sort, it is that the proposed development still has to respect and comply to the fifty-plus requirements which the Village planning department had stipulated two years ago. And that is assuming that there is a developer who still is eager to pursue the enterprise.

Putting it all aside, we hang on to the original objections to the development as values and concerns the neighborhood held about this development. We hope that the Village departments will remember these too.

Chief among our concerns today is the forecasted population of 150 children who will live and play a stone’s throw distant from Butterfield School, and its magnificent and inviting playing fields. They are there within sight, viewed from the opposite side of a 4-lane Butterfield highway.

Hindsight is perfect vision. While the Village focused on the difficulties in local motorists making left turns out onto Butterfield, little light was shed on the dangers of pedestrian traffic– young kids, minors, venturing across the highway over which 24,000 cars speed through at 47 mph. every day.  The lower court judge never heard that insight, and the opportunity to remind him now is moot.

However, the developer will still have that, among many other hurdles to pass before the shovels go into operation.  We will wait to see what the Board chooses to do next, and how the parties involved will respond.

Thanks for reading and sharing, loyal Butterfield Friend and Neighbor.  We will see how it all works out!

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Down At The Rink-1

The Delhi Arena, our sports center year round.

If it wasn’t for the Delhi Arena, most of our youth would have been spent watching TV. But as it turned out, the “rink” was the birthplace of our skaters, hockey players, and curlers. It was also the winter playground where we grew up, showed up, showed off, fought, danced, laughed, spectated, spat, scraped, yelled, screamed and inexorably, became self aware.

The building was the largest and tallest in Delhi, a cinder block fortress with a vast yawning wooden frame roof. Below were two rows of wooden-backed  spectator benches painted in bold reds and blues. Sitting in these, one could look up and wonder at the ceiling. Massive multi-ply planking formed the immense rafters in a parabolic curve that supported tons of shiplap and asphalt roofing tiles.

A modular wooden track is installed for bike races.

Under the rafters, there were hangers and struts arranged in geometric, weight-sharing designs.  These were bolted into the 120-foot wooden joists that stretched the width of the rink.   The walls were held together by penetrating steel rods that crossed the expanse twenty feet above our heads. One could only marvel at the steeple jacks that created this edifice.   And suspended in the middle, at center ice was a four-sided game clock and score box, sponsored by Players cigarettes, that was large enough to house a two-story chicken coop.  Fully automated, it could record Home and Visitor teams scores, count to twenty minutes, and blast a brash game-over siren that was unmistakable.

Here was every Delhi kid’s excuse to get out of the house.  We had a raucous, robust minor hockey league that was a rite of passage for boys.  Typically, we were up before 7am on a Saturday, grabbing a breakfast, and then hiking down to the rink.

For most of us, standard equipment included flimsy little shoulder pads, hardly more protective than a grilled cheese sandwich.  Plastic kneepads, held up by rubber Mason Jar rings, were worn under our jeans, or if we were devoted to the sport, inside Canadiennes or Maple Leaf socks. Most of us had huge sweaters,  hockey pants and suspenders.  We stuffed the whole kit with our skates into a burlap potato sack, and slinging that over our hockey stick, shouldered our gear along streets, alleys and wooded paths, over Big Creek, and down to the rink.

One of Delhi’s many All Star rep teams, courtesy of Vandenbussche Irrigation and The Knights of Columbus.

The rep teams, the All-Stars, had company-sponsored jerseys and played their games in the evenings and weekends, at home and away.   Our rink hosted future hockey royalty too, when a championship match included a young 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky.   He glided across our ice like a jet, maybe aware of what was to come.

But the rep game was far beyond my mediocre skills, intuition or strength, so I spent my hockey hours on Saturday mornings chasing runaway pucks, bouncing off the boards, picking myself up, with occasional wobbling shots aimed at scrambling goalies.

The highlight was Sunday at the rink when our Junior B team, the Rocket 88s would take on a visiting team from neighbouring towns, like Simcoe and Waterford and Tilsonburg, all within 10 miles of Delhi.  The 88s were named for their sponsor, Wills Motors which proudly sold Oldsmobiles.  These games were the quintessential celebration of small town spirit.  500-600 fans would fill the wooden seats and cheer the 88s for every goal, upset and penalty called.

Wills Motors named their team the Rocket 88s for the classic Oldsmobile.

As kids, we ran up and down the concrete aisles, popping empty paper Dixie Cups under our heels, razzing the visiting team behind their bench, banging the boards with broken hockey sticks, scarfing down hot chocolate and cups of salted french fries.  The fans roared for our hometown heroes like Rolly Thibault, Bob Sabatine, Tony Benko, Earl O’Neil, Dan Barrett and Joe Kelly, who was rumored to be Red Kelly’s cousin, but we never knew for sure.  And beside home bench, sat Dr. Ron McCallum, the team’s very own, who eyed every shot, and high stick for a possible injury.

Worthy of note, the ice hockey back then was different from today: no head gear, including the goalie, and no fights.

Between periods there was a solemn procession that never varied.  A cadre of older teen age guys had earned the right to shovel the ice.  This was in the pre-Zamboni era.  About ten of them split into two teams, and would push heavy steel shovels up and down the length of the rink in formation like Canada geese.  The shaved ice would flow off the first shovel onto the one beside and back a few paces, until it had cascaded across 5 or 6 blades.

Hockey the way it used to be: no helmets, masks or fights.

The shovelers had a uniform, too.  Not with stripes or corporate sponsoring, but just as important.  They were on display.  It would be a flight jacket or heavy windbreaker, zipped half way up the chest to reveal a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar displaying a white t-shirt.  The jacket collar was always turned up.  Their hair was slick and groomed to perfection. The uniform called for jeans that were draped into black rubber wellingtons with orange trim, folded down to reveal about 4 inches of the boot’s canvas lining.  An acceptable alternative was the zipped rubber boot which by consensus must be unzipped down to the toes so that the boots’ collars flapped open like Batman’s cape.

The game clock, courtesy of Imperial Tobacco’s Players cigarettes.

After circling the rink, the two shovel teams corralled all the shaved ice into the middle lane.  There, in the grande finale, they would cup the snow into one pile and all ten shovelers would push the shavings out the back door of the rink.   They didn’t return, but it’s likely they paused for a smoke out back as the crowds waited inside for the next act.

It was very special.   A small, quiet, older gentleman with silver hair, Ivan, would apply a new surface to the ice.  Before Zamboni, ice makers rigged up a 45-gallon drum filled with steaming hot water.  It was mounted on two black rubber tires, and had two 6-foot-pipe outriggers that oozed hot water through toweling onto the ice.  Ivan wore steel cleats.  He would carefully pull his contraption along the scarred and riddled surface, and opening the valves a tad, create a smooth satin sheen before us.  Ivan could resurface the entire rink in about ten minutes, under the watchful eyes of impatient ’88 fans who couldn’t help but notice the “Vandenbussche Irrigation” sign displayed on a tent over the drum.

The rink was the town’s sports center, in use all year.  It hosted bicycle races, wrestling matches, roller skating, a little curling – and hockey, for sure.  But that was only part of the program.  The rink had figure skating too, which was magical, and wildly exciting in another way I can’t begin to tell you now.  A weird place for a guy to show up, but there I was.

More to follow, next week.

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Culture, Government, Legal

Red Light-Green Light

The Church’s 148-Unit Subdivision continues to bubble.

Libertyville: The Village had its day in court this morning, with a brisk Q&A between a panel of three appellate court justices and two lawyers who represented both sides of the debate– “Did the lower court make a mistake when it green-lighted the Church’s plans to build a 148-unit subdivision on Butterfield Road?”

As you can guess, the proposed answers were, “yes” and “no”.

As you will recall, in February 2019, the Lake County 19th Circuit court held in favor of the Church that their development could go ahead. The court ruled that the Village could offer no credible proof that the traffic on Butterfield would be dangerous to the health and safety of Libertyville residents. This ruling hinged on the court’s belief that Lake Street at Butterfield Road would not be a dangerous intersection, and that the development’s single access point further south would also not be dangerous to residents entering and exiting the development.

Inherent in that decision was the court found the Village had been unreasonable and capricious in refusing to change the zoning of the area to accommodate the development.

Northbound traffic on Butterfield: tough for left turns.

The Village chose to appeal this ruling.  It’s reversible, on the basis that the developer had not complied with the Village’s subdivision code. The code is steeped in engineering and planning requirements, out of which bubbles a concern for our health and welfare. To wit: traffic is dangerous.

The 2nd Appellate Court is located on the banks of the Fox River in Elgin, Illinois just off route 25, and south of I-90.  It’s a well-dressed building with free parking and pretty efficient entry, unlike Lake County’s 9th Circuit Court in Waukegan where parking is iffy, conflict is more apparent and real, and the justice is being dispensed retail.

Inside the Elgin courthouse you can see large, high-ceilinged courtrooms, paneled in cherry, with a raised bench for the three black-gowned justices.  A foot lower is the single-miked podium and desk for the attorney.  There is ample desk space to lay out volumes of material.  But frankly, not enough time to use it all.  The counter-space could afford two attorneys lying nose-to-nose in a final thumb wrestle if necessary.  The court room also provided for a couple visitor rows.  Interesting to note, there is no steno taking minutes of the proceedings.

What the courthouse does enjoy however is the continual train whistles echoing across the Fox as the freights labor their way back and forth, oblivious to the closed-door grumbling and pleading going on just yards away.

The justices–who commendably had prepped by reading the Village’s 3,000-page appeal statement, plus review the lower court’s 8 days of testimony and final decision– peppered the Village with questions. In 15 minutes, the basic question was formulated, “Where in the lower court trial did the Village ever talk about the subdivision code, while instead only testifying to the traffic safety issue?”

Our response was that the Church never complained about the subdivision code, only the negative zoning decision. So that’s all we defended against.

With that established, the Church’s attorney stepped forward to bat away the justices’ questions. These generally focused on any challenges or approvals that might alert the developer to change plans to comply. “No, in fact we were agreeing to comply, or getting approvals in every negotiation of a planned development. A planned development allows for Village and developer to side-step zoning rules in favor of creative alternatives. For example, narrow alleys and no driveways with small lots provide room for more open space for all residents.”

Following that 15 minute dialogue, the Village attorney resumed for a 5-minute rebuttal where again he re-iterated that both zoning compliance and subdivision code had to be upheld, and that the lower court ruling should be reversed.

The chief justice then closed the session with a promise to find a decision. No time-line was offered, but outside the court, we heard it could take months.

When I asked the Village’s attorney to sum up our position, that despite the Planned Development process, both the Zoning Ordinance and the Subdivision Code both had to be upheld, to paraphrase, he observed: “You can’t have one without the other.  You can’t plead innocence to the judge that you were obeying the speed limit while you ran the red light.”

 

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Agriculture, Culture, Marketing, Thank You

Own Your Burger!

A welcome sign on route 94 into Wisconsin.

One of the great treats of living in northern Illinois is being able to hop over the state line into Wisconsin. The land of beer, cheese, sausage, milk, football, hunting, fishing, camping, farming and hard work is a near infinite portal to the pursuit of happiness.

I need to tell you about just one of those diversions: the Culver’s Butterburger.

In an era when dairy products are viewed as gateway fats, it’s crazy to promote a burger naming butter as a signature ingredient.  But in Wisconsin, what else is more appropriate?  This burger is not politically correct.  It’s frank, and honest.

In fact, the Butterburger is a winning trademarked name that has been touted proudly since 1984.  And its sidekick?  Fresh Frozen Custard, which is made with, yes, you guessed it, eggs.  Not a lot, but they are in there.

The Butterburger is raw culinary honesty at its best.  Culver’s makes no bones about promoting the zest and robust fullness of their foods.  Yep, it’s got fat, and it tastes good.   The Butterburger is a visual treat too.  Packed with yellow cheddar, red tomatoes, green lettuce, pickles, and purple sweet onion, it looks like a miniature carnival carousel.  It lacks only a calliope and an operator.

The Culver’s bag is all message. “Welcome to delicious”.

We were told about the Butterburger nearly 20 years ago, but never had the temerity to go to Culver’s and try one on. The thought of it repelled.  We visualized a hamburger swimming in butter, squirting mayonnaise, dripping juice with every bite.

And then the ads started.  We saw Craig Culver, capped and jacketed in blue, coaching the cook staff on the proper way to flatten the fresh beef patty on the grill.   It had a family feel about it, and somewhat reminiscent of another family burger business, Wendy’s.

We ordered two sandwiches, well beyond our appetites and good guidance.

But the ads persisted, and one day, they introduced the Butterburger Deluxe Double.  Two beef patties, mayo, and all the colorful rest.  That was when I learned that the butter was actually brushed onto the bun and grilled before the burger was assembled.  Well, that’s not so bad, is it?

So on a hot day in September, we drove to a Culver’s in Wisconsin, just over the line, and against all dining habits and trashing healthful instincts, guiltily ordered up two Deluxe Doubles to go. We waited a full five minutes as they actually cooked the burgers for us, squashing them down just like Craig instructed. Then, presented with a bulging bag of two you-know-whats, we drove like bootleggers off to a neighboring lakeside park to enjoy our feast with some ice-cold beers.

The experience was “our first” of a sort, and it was sinfully delightful.  Forbidden foods should be like that.  Reaching into the bag, we pulled out two promising, boxed beauties.   They looked just like the ads.  Sitting down on a bench, we marveled at the sensory delights of a bulging fat, colorful, shameless sandwich, dripping in beef juice and mayo.  It was hot, succulent, cheesy, and messy, with chunks of tomato and purple onion escaping out the sides of our mouths.  To some it might just be a burger.  To me, it was ambrosia.

The sandwich bulges with color, meat and veg, and oozes cheese and mayo.

Just wondering how deeply we had entered into the badlands of fat, I checked the Culver’s website, and found that our Butterburger Deluxe Double weighed in at 810 calories, with 155 mg. of cholesterol.  Bad?  Eaten every day, not good.  But once in a while, I could live with.

Incidentally, I took the fight to Wendy’s and bought a “Double Dave” named after the late Dave Thomas, founder, and felt the experience similar, but lacking the purple onion and extra mayo and raucously celebrated butter, it was a second place presentation.  The Double Dave also boasted 810 calories and 175 mg. of cholesterol, but without the hutzpah, the bravado of the Butterburger’s brazen image, it didn’t deliver the guilty satisfaction I felt in Wisconsin.

To some, a burger. To me, ambrosia.

The Culver’s website also gave me a look at the larger picture.  It’s a family run, privately owned business, 736 restaurants sprinkled across the midwest and south.  Wendy’s has 6,000.  The company is HQ-ed in Sauk Wisconsin, a smallish town north of Milwaukee.

Culver’s targets its charitable giving and philanthropy towards agriculture, supporting the education of young farmers with activities in the National Future Farmers of America, Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, and most intriguing, Cows on the Concourse, in Madison Wisconsin.

Welcome–a burger most proud!

 

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childhood, Culture, Thanks

Where The Time Went

The James Park Grandad from Preston Lancashire.

As I’ve mentioned before, the curse of the Baby Boomer is to inherit their parents’ estates. It is a blessing too, but the cursing starts when you search for a place to put it all. Nevertheless, in our case, we have been blessed with time…time in the form of clocks.

Taking a stand in the workshop.

The Park Grandfather Clock
As a very young fellow, barely walking, I was enchanted by the tall, wooden long-cased clock that guarded over our hallway in our first home in Delhi. The antique was built sometime between 1816-1855 by James Park in Preston, Lancashire, England. My great great grandfather had acquired this handsome old wooden gentleman when it was fairly young, and had kept it running, just as his son, grandson, and great grandson, my father, would continue to do. A gorgeous piece of cherrywood sculpture, graced by a brass works that with regular winding would tell the time of day, the day of the month, and chime the hours with a beautiful bell.

As a toddler, I scrambled and slid across those hardwood  floors with baby fat knees, making it up to the glass-windowed front door of the clock. Inside, a long pendulum punctuated by a baseball-sized brass medallion swung slowly behind two ominous, bullet-shaped weights. These weights were cast iron, hung on pulleys, and tipped the scales at 20 pounds each. They looked like ’88 shells from a WW2 anti-aircraft cannon.

The grandfather clock’s windowed door presented a tiny brass handle which I found intriguing, and happily, just within reach. Fascinated by the pendulum’s slow swing, and the twin 88’s, I pulled the door open for a closer look. The bob was suspended on a steel pendulum connected to a fragile tin hook called a feather, at the top of the clock. With the strength that only a curious tyke can offer, I pulled at the bob, stopping it in its perpetual track, and without a moment’s delay, gripped it hard while I climbed into the case. The tin feather gave way, and I fell in.

As you might guess, calamity followed, and the clock tumbled  over on top of me, spraying the hardwood floor with shattered glass and chunks of 150-year-old lacquered cherry and clock hands. When my horrified parents lifted the clock up, they found me nestled between the two 88’s, unharmed.  The clock’s case was demolished, and after a forceful, shrill, and pointed scolding from my mother, dad picked up the pieces, and packed the works into a box.

Grandad’s works. The gnarly toothed wheel counts the strikes of the bell.

Forty years passed before dad opened the box again.  Using some plans he purchased from a clock company in Kitchener, he built a new case, out of Norfolk County cherry, installed the aged brass works, and had the clock up and going.  It was another thirty years later in 2012, with some transitions along the way, that the now shrink-wrapped clock was retrieved from storage and made its way into our home. I mentioned storage because that is an essential tool for seniors today: a place to store our late parents’ stuff.

The clock was a mechanical puzzle for me.  It took literally 2 months of leveling, machine cleaning, tinkering, timing and fiddling with the works of the clock and its chime to get it to run.  During this time I scanned the internet to identify its maker, James Park, and thereby, date the clock.

Today, the revered piece quietly and solemnly ticks away beside my workshop bench in the basement.  It’s not exactly a man cave down there, but it’s home to the clock.  I visit regularly, and address it as my old friend, winding up the 88’s, a reminder of my heritage, and its place in our family.

The Seth Thomas Clock

The Seth Thomas. It had not moved in over 70 years, but comes to life.

Still again, as a young boy, I sat at an ancient cherry desk, once owned by my grandfather, worrying an eraser across a smudged arithmetic drill sheet. Above the shelving of the desk rested an equally aged mantel clock.  Its rectangular wooden case stood about 16 inches high, and housed a chipped black and white face.  By opening the hinged, windowed door, one could wind the works.

This clock, in my entire history with it, never worked.  It merely sat as desk candy, adding some dignity to our den, but no timely input.  The brass bob hung still, and the black  bedspring that acted as the chime, stood mute.

When we were emptying out my parents’ home, it was one of the first items we took for our own home.  It was placed on top of our piano, a previous inheritance, still and quiet.

The Seth Thomas works, made by Ansonia Clock Company, which was sold to the Soviets in 1929.

Having revived the James Park, I felt emboldened to bring Seth Thomas back to life, or at least, find out why it was comatose.  Taking the machine apart, I discovered that the works were brass, and made by the Ansonia Clock Company of Connecticut, and New York.  Seth Thomas was started in 1813, but Ansonia came 62 years later, so the clock was built after 1875, but before 1929, when Ansonia was sold to the Soviet government under the direction of Joseph Stalin.  A little known legacy of Stalin is the birth and robust growth of Russian timepiece manufacture which still prevails today.

Having bared the brass works, I viewed a spotless brass and steel jumble of springs, cogs, spindles, bushings and wheels.  They were wound up tight.  I removed the bob, and laying the machine on its side, washed it down with some mineral spirits.  Suddenly, the pendulum started to quiver sporadically.   More scrubbing, and the pendulum rattled to life, flicking back and forth unimpeded by the brass bob.   After a few minutes, the clockworks were up and at it, relieving wound-up spring pressure frozen since the early 1940s.

The Seth Thomas has now taken a new position on a side table in our family room.  It needs winding every three days, and faithfully attempts to strike its bedspring marking the hours and half hours.  I turned off the striker to avoid the continual reminders that time is passing.  But still, I enjoy twisting the brass key to re-wind the clock, and it gives me a moment to reflect on who has touched this antiquity.

The Railroad Clock

Our railroad station clock. Sparkling, shiny, stainless bob and weight.

Our first acquisition was a wall clock that was hung in the house of my wife’s family.   It has no apparent brand stamped on it, but was reputedly taken from a railroad station in the years before WW1 by her grandfather, and passed along to her family, and then to us.

The rail road clock is a beautiful weight-driven clock with a sparkling, engraved stainless steel bob and cylindrical weight. Tom, my father-in-law saw to it that this time piece worked flawlessly, and had it refurbished by a professional years ago.  It keeps perfect time, and that’s all.  No chimes.  No rising and setting suns and stars.  Perfect for predicting arrival wait times in a train station.

An instruction in DYMO.

This clock is distinguished in two ways.  First, Tom placed a cautioning instruction inside the case using his ever-present DYMO labeler: “Do Not Wind Weight Above This Level”.  This is no small point to recall.  Everything that moved in his home was liable to be DYMO-ed. He loved labels.  Second, Tom left a small tin inside the case which held a tiny oil cloth, soaked in paraffin and Packers Pine Tar Soap.  I don’t know why, but perhaps he cleaned the works with it.  In any event, I open the case and wind this clock once a week, never above the line, and breathe in the pine tar bouquet.

It is a warm reminder once again of the person who gave it to us.  I think he did that on purpose.

 

Thanks for reading! I hope you will share your own experiences with inheriting precious items from your folks!  Here’s another story, too.

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