MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Today, a story about clock towers.
They once served an important purpose: keeping people aware of the time, of course! And the massive timepieces are part of important architectural treasures all over this country.
But these days, everyone has a clock in the palm of their hand.
REICHARD: So, who cares what happens to those big timepieces?
Here’s WORLD’s Bonnie Pritchett with the story.
AUDIO: [TRACTOR TRAILER, THEN MIX OF TRAFFIC, TALKING, BIRDS]
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: If it weren’t for the traffic, walking around the Caldwell County square would be like stepping back in time. Early 20th century shops surround and lift their gaze to the grand 1894 white and red-trimmed sandstone county courthouse. It’s capped with a four-faced tower clock. The clock’s peal on the hour and half hour once ordered the town’s rhythm of life.
On this bright 21st century afternoon, the tower clock says the time is 1:48.
Yes, it’s 1:45?
AUDIO: [ELEVATOR AND CLIMBING THE LADDER]
A few minutes after the big black minute hand went back in time, I met up with two men holding the keys to an explanation and the hands of time.
GENE GALBRAITH: OK now, Ben will show you how the process of getting up to the clock…
That’s Gene Galbraith, president of the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches located across the street from the courthouse. Ben Courtney is clock master. They’re on the third floor of the courthouse where the elevator and stairs end.
Courtney pulls a cord dangling from the ceiling. It lowers a recessed panel that disgorges an attic access ladder.
The clock is four levels up.
AUDIO: [STEPS ON THE LADDER]
Courtney heads toward the dark rectangle in the ceiling followed by Galbraith.
BEN COURTNEY: So, we have another set of stairs we go up with a light switch….
AUDIO: [COURTNEY GOING UP THE STAIRS]
At the top of those steps the pair cross the next landing and scale the first of two metal ladders that lead to the tower clock.
GALBRAITH: OK. One more flight over there.
COURTNEY: When I get to the top, I have to unlock this door.
GALBRAITH: Yeh. We’ll wait till he gets up there before we start…
AUDIO: [STEPS ON LADDER AND KEYS JANGLING..]
There’s no landing at the top of the second ladder. Only a door to Courtney’s right that he must unlock with one hand while gripping the ladder with the other.
But why make this arduous expedition?
GALBRAITH: There’s not very many people who get to see this.
AUDIO: [CLIMBING INTO THE ROOM]
AUDIO: [TICKING CLOCK]
COURTNEY: This is the clock mechanical room…
The 1917 Seth Thomas mechanical clock fills most of the 8-foot by 10-foot, white-paneled room. Its shiny steel pinions and bronze gears, and what look like bicycle chains, stand out against the green cast-iron frame. Its slender design belies its 3,000 pounds.
The swinging pendulum keeps one particular gear marking the seconds at a steady 36 hundred beats per hour.
Except when it doesn’t. Hence, Courtney’s weekly climb up the tower. Galbraith, who is 85, made those trips until 20-19 when he handed the job to the 71-year-old Courtney.
COURTNEY: OK, we’re about half a minute off on there…
Using a clock wrench Courtney reaches into the mechanism, makes a minute adjustment that moves the 5-foot-long hands on the clock faces and…
AUDIO: [CLICK, CLACK, BELL STRIKES ONCE]
COURTNEY: Two things have a huge affect on the operation of the clock – temperature and wind. This whole tower in the courthouse is a wooden structure. So, when we get high winds it’ll sway just a fraction of an inch but its enough to change the rate of the swing of the pendulum. So that will change the time showing on the clock. The other thing is temperature. This pendulum rod is a wooden rod. And temperature will cause it to expand and contract which changes the length. And the length of it is what controls the rate of the clock…
The elements put this clock off by 2 to 3 minutes each week. About 45 minutes ago, Courtney corrected the time from 1:48 to 1:45.
This clock requires only general maintenance. But the ravages of nature and time have taken a toll on the state’s 55 courthouse tower clocks.
GALBRAITH: And of those 55 only, maybe, 20 of them actually work…
That’s why Galbraith and the museum started the Tower Clock Initiative to restore those clocks to their former glory. To date, they’ve restored seven and repaired four.
COURTNEY: Some of the clocks that, when you go up in the tower, it looks like they belong in a junkyard. I mean, they’re in a horrendous state…
Some clocks are beyond repair and must be replaced. Restoring time-only clocks costs about $30,000. Striking and chiming clocks can cost upwards of $60,000. The Texas Historical Commission offers grants to pay half the cost of restoration.
But why fix them? Haven’t they outlived their usefulness?
COURTNEY: The original purpose for the tower clock was so that all the businesses in town would be on the same time. And they did serve their purpose. Today’s tower clock is a matter of pride for the people in the community…
Before leaving the clock mechanical room, the pair wait for the striking of the hour.
AUDIO: [TICKING, CLICK, THREE CHIMES]
GALBRAITH: Now isn’t that thrilling?!
The sound of a properly working clock never gets old for Galbraith and Courtney. Restoring life to still, silent timepieces keeps these two ticking.
GALBRAITH: (LAUGHTER) There’s no such thing as retirement. And we’re not going to quit. There’s always time to be made…
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Lockhart, Texas.