Town Clock Still Ringing Time After 124 Years

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[For an easy-to-follow pictorial explanation of the clock and to watch it strike noon, click here.]

It’s 10:15 a.m. on a chilly Friday in April as George Rodgers climbs 50 steps on four worn staircases, most at right angles to one another, to reach the tower clock in First Church on High Street in the center.

Photo by Tony Peterson
Suffield resident George Rodgers, with decades of mechanical repair experience, is shown winding the Town clock, which rings hourly.

He stretches his 6’ 1” lanky frame as he reaches for the bronze-tipped crank to wind the Seth Thomas Town clock, which devoted others like him have done for 124 years.

It rings the time every hour, every day.

As the “Town crank,” which Suffield’s clock-winders are affectionately called, Rodgers first winds the timekeeping portion of the clock regulated by a 350-pound weight. Then, he winds the bell-striker part of the clock connected to a 950-pound weight. That takes a lot more effort, so he has the option of using a portable motor and pulley system that the friend of a former clock winder introduced in the mid-80s, as reported by George Graham of The Union-News of Springfield on April 1, 1989, copyright The Republican Company.

Rodgers has been the official clock winder since 2022 but said he helped fill in for his predecessor, the late Tom Wardell, for over 15 years previously.

It takes him ten to fifteen minutes to wind the clock twice weekly.

Once a month, he oils the clock bushings and gears. Every couple of months, he scales the eleven-step staircase to the belfry, one story above, to ensure all is well with the bell and hammer that strikes the bell hourly. From the belfry, Rodgers climbs a wall-attached ladder to the gloomy top room that houses the shafts and gearing, which operate the four clock faces on the tower. The only way to get appreciable light into that room is by opening the cast iron doors that cover lookouts in the brick tower directly above 12 o’clock on each of the four clock faces. The lookouts let Rodgers see the hands as he adjusts them inside the tower when he’s correcting the time.

The entire clock operation is mechanical.

Clock History

The Seth Thomas clock was a gift from Mrs. Cornelia Pomeroy Newton in 1900 to the First Church, then called the First Ecclesiastical Society of Suffield. As inscribed on a small plaque screwed to the front clock frame, she dedicated it to her father and his immediate family.

Later, the town took over ownership of the clock and has since paid for its repairs and the modest annual stipend of the clock winder. Records of the switch, decades-old repair bills and the names of early clock winders may exist somewhere in town, but neither the town historical society, library, nor selectman’s office knows where they might be.

I do know that one early “clock regulator,” Ray Goodale, was upsetting Suffield residents when the clock ran about ten minutes fast for two weeks. “It is a great inconvenience to residents living at the center, as it regulates the time for the town,” reported the Hartford Courant on January 23, 1912.

One year earlier, in 1911, news of our clock having stopped working for weeks was reported locally and spread as far west as Fairbanks, Alaska. That the clock had stopped chiming wasn’t newsworthy, but rather why it stopped. According to the July 31, 1911, Alaska Citizen, the First Church pastor at the time, Rev. Daniel Kennedy, who lived in the parsonage next door, had deliberately stopped the clock since its chiming was keeping his babies awake at night. After admitting he was the cause, he threatened to resign if the clock was restarted. How that delicate issue was ultimately resolved, I couldn’t find.

The clock later survived the 1938 hurricane, which toppled the steeple that towered above it and was never replaced.

Estimated Life

According to Steve Cowdell from Stevenson Services of Bristol, Conn., who has repaired the clock, “There were clocks, and then there were Seth Thomas’s and E. Howard’s. They were top of the lines.” He said the two brands were comparable in quality, noting that an early brochure published by E. Howard stated that with the proper care, such as periodic lubrication, cable checks, and cleaning, the clock could last 400 years.

Cowdell’s shop has the machinery to duplicate broken tower clock parts, which he said can be painstakingly difficult since clocks of that era were entirely custom-made by one person. “Real craftsmen,” he called them.

So, with devoted clock-winders and caretakers like George Rodgers–his predecessors and successors–could Suffield’s tower clock last until the year 2300?

Hopefully, only our descendants will know.

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