Information on the history of the Seth Thomas Clock and notes about its restoration
De Mesy Opinion
Mr. Rory DeMesy, a clock-making expert who restored the Appanoose County courthouse tower clock, has completed over 30 clock restorations in his career, mostly for wealthy collectors. Although he worked on many tower clocks, the circa 1925 Appanoose County tower clock is his first restoration for a clock in its original location. It contains the first set of auto-winders he designed. Since then, he completed restoration of the Unionville, Missouri tower clock. He has a contract to build the clock for the former Dallas County, Texas Courthouse building tower. The building, overlooking the JFK Memorial Plaza in Dallas, is being restored for use as a museum for the county. The website is www.oldred.org.
The Courthouse clock is a #17 Seth Thomas clock, which weighs approximately 1500 pounds.
According to Mr. DeMesy, our clock weighs about 1500 pounds, and four parts weigh too much to be carried down stairs by one person: The bed, at around 500 pounds, is the heaviest part. Because the courthouse is old and exit paths are wooden, they are not structurally sound enough to support the weight of the clock part plus 2-4 men at 150-200 pounds each to carry it. Alternative ways to remove the clock have been investigated. The best way suggested so far is to carefully pack the clock, lower it to the belfry, move it over a reinforced pathway on the attic roof and lower it down the side by means of a specially built block and tackle rig. The use of a mobile crane was also suggested. However, the over-the-roof method would eliminate the need to worry about wind and crane operator error.
The clock would be carefully packed, removed and escorted to and from his Minnesota workshop under Mr. DeMesy’s personal supervision, in a vehicle supplied by him. If need be, the clock could also be escorted by county officials. The county could insure the clock for this special trip. In the unlikely event that something would happen to it, Mr. DeMesy could repair or replace any damage.
In order to be restored, the clock will have to be removed from the clock tower. Experts agree that in order for the clock to run correctly, certain parts have to be machined, and that the best clock restoration experts have their own, specialized workshops. It is not feasible to hoist heavy machining equipment into the clock tower to do the repair and restoration on site. The rotten floor in the belfry and clock room will not support such equipment, and there is not enough room for the machinery in the tiny clock room. The unheated, poorly ventilated clock room is not a very hospitable place to visit, let alone trying to do exacting work there. For those who might fear for the safety of the clock, it should be remembered that the clock was manufactured in Connecticut, crated, shipped all the way to Bloomfield, hoisted up and installed without incident into the completed clock tower in 1879.
Internet research to find out more about tower clock repair and restoration lead to a website called “The Clockwork Historian” owned by Don Haven Lathrop. Mr. Lathrop’s primary interest is research and writing about the early clockmakers in New England. Of special interest are early makers of tower clocks, their ingenious ventures into practicing the clockmaker's art and their mastery of the clockmaker's artistry.
Mr. Lathrop wrote of the access route to the clock, “That's the first item that should be repaired. Regardless of whether the clock is electrified or weight driven, access to the clock must be fairly easy and safe. Even after the clock is restored in whatever way it is restored, someone has to check it at least weekly. Otherwise, it is ignored, and it will soon require more work to get it running..
”The second item to be repaired is the escapement. As the clock is currently configured, it is being driven backwards--the usual drive is from the weight drum to the escapement--which will destroy the clock. The reason is that the teeth on the gears aren't designed to be driven backwards. If you want the clock electrified, the best way to do that is to leave the clock proper alone, and configure an electric motor to drive the transmission above the clock, and thereby the hands.
”The clock does indeed have a pinwheel escapement of the type designed by Hotchkiss. I've seen the installation on Hotchkiss clocks. It's rare on a Seth Thomas, but common on Hotchkiss clocks.
”Someone appears to have poured oil over the gears. That's a NO-NO! All this does is allow the gears to become coated with oil and the inevitable dust. These form an abrasive that wears the gears even more quickly, particularly with the backwards drive. The gears were designed to run dry--NO OIL!
Climbing the ladder from the belfry up to the clock tower reminds one of climbing into the haymow on the farm.
”If the clock does indeed have a rare escapement, then restore the clock to use weight drive and the original escapement. THAT would be worthwhile, and will preserve the clock much better than merely cleaning it and allowing it to still be driven backwards.
It's also obvious that the clock no longer strikes as it was designed, and that the strike train of gears is also being driven backwards. If that's the case, and this situation is not going to be changed by the restoration, don't bother with the clock. Being driven backwards, even after restoration, will just destroy the clock. Electric strike units can be installed, and would be recommended along with the electrical drive to the dials.
”If the Board of Supervisors is really interested in having the clock restored, it should be done properly and correctly. Anything other will be a waste of time and money.”
Mr. Lathrop recommended the Balzer Family Clockworks as a company that would “do superb work.”
”I've no connection with the company, but have seen many of their restorations, and they are done correctly. A word of warning: They are not cheap, but when they're done, the County will have a clock that will survive and run correctly for another 125 years.
”Just as a by the way, Andrew Stephen Hotchkiss sold his tower clock company to Seth Thomas in 1872, and then worked for Seth Thomas until his death. Seth Thomas capitalized on his excellent design work by having the setting dial on the clock itself signed "A. S. Hotchkiss."
The Balzer Family of Freeport, Maine is a well-known company that would do “superb” although probably expensive, work on the courthouse clock. Their website is www.balzerclockworks.com.
An article in an “American Profile” insert in the Ottumwa, IA Courier stated that Rick Balzer is a former bank officer who has been working on clocks since 1978. The family consists Rick, his wife Linda, son Chris and his wife, Kathryn, all involved in the business.
Mr. Balzer agreed with Donald Lathrop’s statement that if the clock has been electrified and it is being driven backward, causing excess wear and tear on the gearing, then it is doomed to eventual destruction.
Others have suggested one option is to use a totally new electric movement to drive the hands, bypassing the clock entirely. The mechanical clock can then be restored and either left in place or installed in a place of honor in the building, where it can be viewed and appreciated by all.
This picture of the back side of one of the clock dials shows the gears that drive the minute and hour hands. The clockface is made of pressed tin. Photo by Harold Leifer.
When the clock is restored, Mr. Balzer agreed that it should be run by a custom designed set of auto-winders.
When the clock is restored it must come out of the tower. The required machining can’t be accomplished on site. Special machining requires the pieces to be taken to the restorer’s workshop.
If chosen to do the restoration, the Balzers would personally disassemble and pack the clock into a truck supplied by them, accompany the clock en route to and from their workshop in Freeport, Maine. They do approximately six restorations per year, costing from $15,000 to $125,000. They gave a range of $30,000-$60,000 for the type of Seth Thomas clock owned by Davis County. (The DeMesy proposal falls within that range).
In addition, Mr. Balzer highly recommended the clock not be returned to the tower after restoration. He thinks the clock should be positioned where it can be observed by the public who own it, and where it can be easily maintained. Old tower clocks need restoration due to a number of reasons, including difficult access and the false assumption made by many towns that electrification did away with the need for maintenance.
Rick Balzer referred me to Donald Saff, an authority on large timepieces and senior curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, for expert advice.
Donald Saff is an authority on large timepieces and senior curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Dr. Saff was sent a full set of clock pictures. As well as recommendations specific to restoring the mechanical works of our clock, he replied with the following remarks:
About removing the clock with a crane, Dr. Saff said, “The courthouse is extraordinarily beautiful which would make me uneasy if a crane were to be used. If it is not used then the access, stairs, etc. would have to be fixed and made safe before any work can take place. It will probably be best if riggers removed the clock parts under the direction of the clockmaker.
“The bell is important because McNeely was probably the preeminent bell founder of the late 19-early 20th century.
“The clock is extremely rare as there are many Hotchkiss clocks but few are of the very early Seth Thomas collaboration (Hotchkiss did make clocks under his own name before going to Seth Thomas). The crutch,” (hanging from the timber in the clock room),” is a typical early Hotchkiss crutch and one of the unique elements of very early clocks. It is the one that should be returned to the clock. It would be very easy to replace the crutch with spare Seth Thomas parts from newer clocks. It is very important to know these things as modifications can be made with inappropriate Seth Thomas parts which are in greater abundance.
The broken pendulum is one of the many original parts that would be returned to use in the extremely rare Seth Thomas clock. Photo by Harold Leifer.
“It is also rare to find a clock with as much original paint.”
“Under no circumstances should the clock be repainted irrespective of those who may tell you that it is saturated with oil and is therefore problematic.
“Many tower clocks around the country have been restored for the cost of materials by local chapters of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (located in Columbia PA.). Given the historical importance of the clock, the courthouse and environs many members would delight in taking on the project. This may however, be difficult to organize in Iowa but worth the time to research the possibility.
“Please take your time and be sure you know all the details of the clock before sending it out. Sending it off is the only way that it can be restored so if those responsible for the clock will not allow it to be removed it will be virtually impossible to repair.
“If you lack sufficient funds then you should wait. Do not make a mistake by choosing the low bid---choose a person you can trust but one who will take directions on the restoration. I am happy to consult in any way (pro bono) as you have a treasure. One last thought---- you might want to convert the system to all electric so you can lower the clock, restore it and place it on display in lobby or other well traveled location in the court house building.”
Bradley Wardlow is a Davis County native and long-time resident who is also a long-standing collector with historical and mechanical knowledge of all kinds of clocks. Brad was closely involved in the funding and restoring of the courthouse tower clock in nearby Appanoose County. He is very interested in helping Davis County citizens restore their special clock.
Brad’s love of clocks began with the gift of an old clock. His collection grew to 400 clocks before he sold it to start his John Deere equipment business located in Centerville and Bloomfield, IA.
Before Bradley became involved, the Appanoose County Courthouse clock was being serviced by a local clock repair expert. When access to the tower clock grew too difficult, the elderly gentleman called on Brad for help, and he became the person who tinkered with the clock. Brad was expert enough to know his “band-aid” fixes were not right for continuing care of the clock, which needed to be properly repaired. As a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, he was able to locate Rory DeMesy of Minneapolis, a qualified expert who ultimately restored the Appanoose County clock.
Brad recently helped the citizens of Putnam County restore their courthouse clock located in Unionville, Missouri: Rory DeMesy did the work.
Brad’s eyes light up when talking about the Davis County clock. Brad suggested the supervisors explore restoring the clock The only missing part is the verge, which can be duplicated from one other existing example. The clock can’t be repaired in place. Although it is really hard to destroy the clock, the dirt and grime on it have destroyed its ability to keep time accurately, and it must be retooled. The bell must be rotated to move the hammer away from the visible flat spot.