Silent courthouse clock will chime once more in Bloomfield
Starting in 1909, residents of Bloomfield marked the passage of time by a four-sided clock that ticked off the seconds and boomed out the hours from a tower high above the courthouse. The clock presided over the opening of business and signaled the noon hour and the day’s end for workers in the Stoddard County seat.
Originally, someone had to climb into the tower every eight days to crank up the 200-pound weights that powered the clock and another set that caused the bell to strike. In 1952 an electric motor took over the job of winding. It’s possible that’s when a sign was hung on the wall with the name “Maria Strikes” and the date of the clock’s installation: Dec. 23, 1909.
Its resonant gong could be heard for miles around. Many teenagers attempting to sneak in past their parents’ curfew got caught because of its hourly reminder. It was so much a part of the courthouse town that few noticed when it stopped.
Ironically, time is the worst enemy for a clock. That’s especially true for one built more than a hundred years ago and installed high above the streets where dust, mud daubers and dubious maintenance played havoc on its many moving parts.
What finally silenced the clock was the bushings on which brass shafts moved, a second at a time. The ravages of time wallowed out the bushings, causing the shafts to bind, the gears to stop meshing and time to seemingly stand still.
Ethan Bryeans, a soil conservationist with the Stoddard County Soil and Water Conservation District, is one Bloomfield resident who did take notice. “I’ve driven by it for years and had thought to myself, ‘Man, it would be neat if the clock worked.’ One day when I got off work I decided I was going to walk in the courthouse and just ask somebody what’s wrong with the clock.”
He met with one of the Stoddard County commissioners, who told him repairing the clock had come up at the county meetings but nothing had come of it. “They hit a lot of dead ends trying to find someone who worked on that kind of stuff,” Ethan says.
Be careful what you ask for. In short order the SEMO Electric Cooperative member found himself authorized to climb up the rickety ladder into the cupola to photograph the clock mechanism in the hopes of sharing with someone who repaired clocks.
That’s when he called Sean and Nancy Barnes, who own S&N Clock Repair in Cape Girardeau. Sean asked for the photos and called Ethan back the second he saw them. The next day he too was scaling the ladder, excited to be considered for the restoration.
Sean and Nancy have seen just about every kind of clock come into their shop for repairs, including 200-year-old French clocks, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks and mantel clocks. But the thought of working on a tower clock like the one in Stoddard County excited them more than anything else.
“It is very cool for a clocksmith to work on something like that,” Sean says. “I was talking to a clocksmith friend of mine up in Lee’s Summit. He works on these. He said being able to work on these kinds of clocks, that’s the Super Bowl. That’s the big leagues.”
Ethan was a little surprised when Sean sent him his bid for the repairs.
“It was substantially lower than I thought it was going to be,” he recalls. “If this was going to cost a lot of money, I was prepared to start raising some funds. I had gobs of people telling me that if you start doing fundraisers, let me know, because we would love to see it working. There were people all over town who were just tickled that something was being done with it. They really cared about the clock.”
Now it was Sean’s turn to wonder what he had gotten himself into. Climbing the shaky ladder was just the first step in getting the clock ticking again. Turning to a book he owns on tower clocks, Sean quickly found the No. 15 Seth Thomas clock movement that was installed in the courthouse during remodeling back in 1909.
The book showed the movement weighs 1,000 pounds. The 4-foot pendulum alone tips the scales at 75 pounds. Sean’s normal procedure of hauling the clock back to his shop for repairs wasn’t going to work this time. “You would have to take the roof off to get it out of here,” Sean says. “I think that’s how they got it in there.”
Instead, he carefully dismantled as much of the clock movement as he could. Each piece had to be carried down two flights of steep stairs, then lowered to Nancy who was standing on the courthouse’s second floor. The clock frame was left in place, as was the massive cast bell that hangs below the movement.
Back in Cape Girardeau, the tedious work began.Though massive in scale, the Stoddard County clock movement works much like the smaller clocks Sean has been repairing for years. He is no stranger to the problems that plague these timekeepers nor the steps required for repair.
Over time, the bushings on clocks wear out. This is caused by dirt and grime — along with nests from mud daubers that took up residence in the tower. Lack of maintenance adds to the problem. Ethan’s research shows the clock was regularly maintained at least until the 1960s. After that, no records exist, leading him to speculate that volunteers oiled the clock on an infrequent basis.
“A lot of times they just get in a bind or the gears get sloppy and the teeth won’t catch,” Sean says. “These parts have never been replaced. They are just worn out.”
No one can remember when this happened in Bloomfield. Best guess is the clock stopped working sometime around 2000.
Sean made new bushings for each of the shafts. “These are things you have to machine,” he says. “You can’t just go and pick them up at a clock supply store or anything like that. They all have to be handmade.”
He extracted broken screws and found replacements. With help from Nancy, his son Dylan and daughter Lauryn 100-plus years of grease was stripped away and a new coat of green paint was applied. Lauryn even painstakingly applied gold pinstriping to the frame.
Now the process moved in reverse, with Nancy carefully tying a rope to each piece and Sean hoisting it back into the tower. The entire family got involved with putting the parts back together.
Then came hours of trial and error getting everything to work properly and turn the giant hands altogether on four universal shafts from the movement. There’s still a lot of adjustments to be made, but Sean is confident the deep bong booming out the hours will return to Bloomfield soon. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say they remember that clock working,” Sean says. “I was talking to a lady and she said, ‘I ate my lunch by that clock. When I heard it go off I knew it was lunchtime.’ I think they are going to be really excited about it. They’ve been trying to get this going for a long time.”
Adds Ethan: “It would be a little bit different if it hadn’t worked for two or three years. But when it hasn’t worked for this long it is a pretty big event to have something like this happen. That clock has been up there looking down on us for a long time. It is really special to get it going again.”
Sean hopes the repairs to Stoddard County’s clock will inspire other towns to restore their church and courthouse clocks. While this repair was underway, he was contacted by Mississippi County which had an electric movement in need of repairs. That was a much simpler project and Sean has it running once again. He was also tasked with repairing the landmark 1916 street clock in downtown Jefferson City.
“Every town had one,” Sean says. “Churches did too. And it seems like they are not working. It is a shame because they are absolutely a gem.”
The Old Town Clock by Jewel Lewis
Most everything around, has been written about,
But the Old Town Clock, and I’m not leaving it out.
It sets up high and looks all around,
And spies on everyone in town.
When I was young, it seemed to pick on me.
My mother set rules for her kids you see.
“You get home by 10 or else,” said she
“You’ll be in serious trouble with me.”
Well I never stepped on the porch in my life,
Without the old clock striking twice.
“It’s two in the morning and you’re just getting in.”
Mom, that darned clock has gone haywire again.
“There’s nothing wrong with that Old Clock,” she said.
“Get in here and get yourself to bed.
“It’s you young lady, you simply can’t mind.
“When you get out again, you’ll get back on time.”
I told you that Old Clock had a pick on me,
And that’s why I didn’t like it you see.
It seemed to just sit up there and stare around.
And spy on all the young people in town.
The Old Clock now has a different meaning to me,
It’s slicing off my time, making me old you see.
And I still don’t like it, why can’t it stand still?
And turn back the time — but it never never will.
I’ll just have to accept it, and calm myself down,
And let the Old Clock rule the people in town.
How would it look without it setting up there,
Swinging its hands in the cool summer air?
You know since I’ve thought it over,
I’ve changed my mind.
That Old Clock is beautiful with its melodious chimes,
It’s the life of our town in our public square.
So go ahead and just set there.
We couldn’t do without the Old Town Clock.
Keep up the good works
With your tick-tock-tock.