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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.