Go Inside a Clock Tower with the Clock Man

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A brick clocktower against a clear sky. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom featuring an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. When you're listening to Rhody Radio, you know you're listening to something good.

[clock striking]

Jessica D'Avanza: Okay. There we go. All right, we're rolling.

Philip D'Avanza: We're here at 404 Market Street, Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. We're outside the front of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church here in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. We're looking right up at the clock up in the clock tower and a beautiful weather vein on top with a might be a rooster on the top. Going in, we're going to go up a couple of stairs and we'll go up. The first level that we're going to come to-- I'll describe this as we go through here.

Jessica: Hey, there, Rhody Radio listeners. This is your guest host, Jessica D'Avanza, from Barrington Public Library. The voice of that man you just heard speaking, that was the clock man. A few days earlier, he'd driven 450 miles from his workshop in New Hampshire to the agrarian community of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. It's a place where the local high schoolers celebrate ride your tractor to school day and you can buy a soft serve ice cream for less than $2.

I'm [00:02:00] here serving as the clock man's assistant, which I've now learned, includes walking up and down narrow flights of dusty wooden stairs while carrying carefully wrapped clock parts inside plastic buckets, along with equipment like rope, a drill, bags of tools, and even a scale. The 150-pound cast iron mainframe had been carried up a week earlier, slung on the back of a local man who works at the limestone quarry.

The inside of the middle section of the clock tower is just bare brick with little ventilation. Amid an early June heat wave, it's tolerable when standing still but while hauling clock parts and gear up and down, it felt like we were cooking inside a pizza oven. Let's just say I ate a lot of soft serve that week. Oh, and the clock man, he's my dad, Philip D'Avanza. He offered to give us a tour of the clock he restored for the town of Mifflinburg. It is housed inside the tower of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church.

One woman, I met gazing at the clock tower from the street, told me it reminded her of a clock she used to admire while living in Amsterdam. I'll let my dad take it from here.

Philip: This is the first level where you walk into the church, your normal level. You go in, you go to the left, you go to sanctuary. You go to the right, you go to all the administrative offices. This small staircase and where we are right here, if you look above, see this decorative wood in here, really nice design all framed out in the middle of the ceiling, that actually was the opening when they hoisted up the clock and a bell, originally.

Every level has an opening but in here they close it up and they put this beautiful decoration up here but you can look at it's about four feet square. We're going to go up these stairs. They're carpeted. They got beautiful loopholes and banisters and [00:04:00] beadboard wainscoting. We'll go up the spiral stairs that are carpeted. We'll go up and we got some beautiful stain glass windows as we go around. It's a spiral staircase going up and we come up to a level here.

Now, if you look up in the ceiling, they've got the same decoration up in the ceiling that we had down below us. If you look up there and notice what's coming out of one of the corner, there's these little circles designs and in the corner, that rope comes down and that's a rope that you come up here to pull on that to ring the bell for church service. If you look, there's another staircase. Now this staircase gets a little narrower where we are in here where the rope is, it's all finished in beautiful oak or chestnut, and the stairs are a little narrower now. We're going to go up.

When we go up, we still got the same nice beadboard wainscoting, nice little post here, beautiful turn spindles, and a railing for you. We go up to the top of the stairs and it goes to the right. Now, all of a sudden, we're looking at brick and just pine floors. We go up but this is where the clock weights are. That's what's down in here. If you look up, you got a brick tower square tower, that's roughly, I would say 12 feet by 12 feet in that vicinity.

If you look up about every 6 feet on the wall, you see all these little notches, they left pieces of brick out but it's all around in every level. They did this when they construct the tower. Wherever you wanted to put a level of floor in, that's what the opens so you could put the beam in for the floor. When you look above, see the stairs above there. If you look above at the beams [00:06:00] underneath that floor, you notice left to right, you got beams but then in the middle, you got two beams that are cut out.

They're boxed-in. Staircase going up is on the right-hand side but that opening is roughly the opening that's below us. If you look on a floor here, look at this hatch. This is a hatch on the floor. You close the door and you lift this up and that's the opening from up above. That's how they hoisted the clock before these stairs were in. They hoisted the bell up. They hoisted the clock up and when that stuff was all in place on the side, they closed it in. They built the stairs.

We'll go up these now. These stairs are definitely different. No more bead wainscoting, no more nicely turned spindles. There are no spindles. [laughs] The only person that goes up here is either somebody to service something up there on the clock or the clock caretaker and winder. Again, we have some small, beautiful stained glass windows on the sides and we just have a nice little single light bulb when we go up.

Very high rise on the stairs. Nothing was cold back then. Now, if you look right here to the left on the side here, there's wait for the strike side of the clock hanging right in front of us here. We have approximately 310 pounds of weight on that rod. As the clock runs, that drops all the way down to the next level below us. We're actually two flights up right now from when we came in bottom-weight run.

Now we're up into the actual room and you notice there's a padlock in here. Bingham Cleveland, that's a old lock but this room gets locked. The only [00:08:00] person that comes up here is the person who takes care of the clock and winds it once a week. Close this hatch and now we're in the room but if you look down here, look right there. You see how the floors, the boards go in a different pattern? This is the opening that they hoisted everything up. They put the clock over on the side and here we are in front of the clock.

That's the sound of a happy clock. It's happy. It's clean. Just got rebuilt, refurbished, freshly oiled, new cables for the weights, the proper amount of weights on them for the time site and timekeeping, strike keeping and everything up above behind the dials has been all rebuilt, restored, and it is just running the way it was when was first put in here. Now, above us, if you look over here, you can see these pulleys on our right side.

That weight that's hanging down, that is for the time side of the clock. That one is currently at 81 pounds. We measure the weights, the weights get stacked on. There's the 30-pounders, there's 15-pounders, and then there are 10-pounders. You use that for your combinations of the weight that's required to keep the clock running properly and for the striking, you got two separate systems.

Now, here you got a shaft that comes out of the clock and that's a vertical shaft. That's a drive shaft and that turns one revolution an hour, it's called a minute shaft. That goes straight up above past the bell. Above us is the bell and on the bell is mounted a bell hammer that this clock, when it strikes the [00:10:00] the hour, it's connected to the bell hammer. It pulls down and lifts the hammer and drops the hammer down and hits the bell. Every blow on a bell is for every hour. At 1:00, it hits once. At 2:00, it'll hit two times. At 3:00, three, and so forth. We have that up here with the bell level. This goes to the level above the bell where the clockfaces are. Ironically, you just have clockfaces up there, and the clock mechanism is down here.

People look at the clocks and they say, "Oh, there's four clocks in there." No, there's four clock faces. One clock mechanism down here that drives the four clock faces. Now, you get some churches that have a cemetery, and it's very, very common that the side facing the cemetery has no clock, so there's three clockfaces. There's different things that people say about that. Some people say that dead people don't care about the time. It was actually all a matter of cost.

Why do you need to have a clock facing the cemetery? It's only dead people so. Keep that in mind as you travel the countryside, and you look around and you see tower clocks, churches with tower clocks and notice if there's a cemetery, many of them will not have a clock face, a dial facing the cemetery. That's basically the way this is. The shaft goes up. There's what we call distribution network up above.

It's a bevel gear system. It's a differential drivetrain that separates the vertical motion of the shaft into horizontal motions, four horizontal shafts that drive each clock face. When you get to the clock face, there's a reduction mechanism behind each one of them, which gives you 12 to 1 reduction as these go through the faces of the clock, the dial. [00:12:00] You have the hour hand, and you have a minute hand. For every revolution of the minute hand, the hour hand moves one-twelfth of a revolution.

For every full revolution of the hour hand, you have the minute hand has to travel 12 times around. That's basically the connection between the clock, the bell. Now, sometimes the bell could be below the clock. Sometimes the clockfaces can be on the same level as the clock with the bell. Sometimes you just have timepieces and you have no bell. It's just the timepiece and the only one in the one side.

We're all finishing up here today. This has been in the shop now for several months since last year, last October. We took it back to the shop in New Hampshire, took it completely apart. Everything was taken out, everything behind the dials. I took a couple of hand. I had to do some repair work to weigh in. All the differential, the drivetrain units that those are all-- everything is taken apart.

There are sub-assemblies and the sub-assemblies are taken-- Each individual bolt, nut, screw, washer, little piece, cotter pins, everything that's in that, taper pins, out, clean, polish, check to see if they need to be replaced, if they're bent, twisted, or whatever repairs need to be done. They're all polished, they're all refinished, they're all lacquered back to the original condition, assembled and test run in the shop for two weeks.

Then you take the clock apart piece by piece, wrap everything up. You pack it up, load it up, and you drive 450 miles to Pennsylvania from Goffstown, New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, to have it brought up piece by piece, assembled in here, get it test run, get it running.

Just going through every single [00:14:00] thing on it and everything appears to be in order, checked all the bolts to make sure everything was secure, checked everything to make sure that everything was properly lubricated, nothing was missed, and tested the bell several times, that's okay, and now, it's like taking your first child to college and leaving them in college, and hoping that you did a good job and you're leaving them.

It's a thing. Do I have everything? Did I do everything right? Made a manual, service manual for Emo who's the winder of the clock. He wasn't familiar with the strike side because when he started winding the clock, that side was not functioning, it was broken. That's a whole new thing for him to learn. It's a thorough manual for him. Any questions he has, he'll be calling me. I think he'll do a fine job. That manual should serve him well and every other caretaker.

This clock has been here since 1898, taken apart in October 2020, and brought back in June 2021. Hopefully, it's here for another 125 years. Served the town of Mifflinburg and all its residents for another couple of generations.

[clock striking]

[00:16:00]

[music]

Jessica: We're recording. I just wanted you to tell everybody that lame joke that you have, the clock [crosstalk]

Phillip: What do you mean lame jokes?

Jessica: [laughs] About the clock being right.

Phillip: Oh, a broken clock being right twice a day?

Jessica: Yes.

Phillip: I take the clocks apart, and I'm walking out with the clock hands, these big clock hands and people say, "There's a guy with time on his hands." I'm working on scaffolding on a clock one time, we were redoing the clockfaces with the hands and the numbers and gold leaf and everything, and people drive by and they say, "Hey, no goofing off, you're on the clock, no goofing off." [chuckles]

Or you're updating, you get the building is stage and you got the four dials. [00:18:00] One person is painting the clockface, and another side, you're putting the numbers on, and another side, you're putting the hands, that's literally working around the clock. [chuckles] What are you supposed to do? Do one clockface all at once, then move on to the next one? You work around so it's working around the clock.

Jessica: See, I always thought those were just dumb dad jokes.

Phillip: Oh, okay.

[laughter]

Jessica: I guess, there was a little more to it than that.

Phillip: Yes, I guess so.

[clock ticking]

Jessica: Phillip D'Avanza has been in the clock repair business for over 40 years. Since 1990, he has focused on tower clock repair in historic structures and is thoroughly familiar with the guidelines for historic preservation as established by the Secretary of the Interior. He began his career in design and precision machining, then utilized his skills as a tool and die maker to provide full-service repair and restoration on some of the most recognized tower clocks in New England.

His work has received notice for several award-winning projects, including the Hallsville School in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Massachusetts trial court in Fall River. If you'd like to see photos of the tower clock projects he has restored visit davanzaclocks.com or check the show notes for the link. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Rhody Radio.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Splaine for the intro and outro clips. Thanks also to the many residents of Mifflinburg whom we met while installing the tower clock. The music you heard is from the electric carillon that chimes at 12:00 PM and 6:00 PM each day. On behalf of Rhody Radio, [00:20:00] thanks to all of our listeners. Episodes drop every Tuesday at 9:00 AM. Each week is a new voice from your neighbors around the state. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and follow us on Twitter @RhodyRadio or on Facebook @rhodyradioonline.

[clock ticking]

Elizabeth: Rhody Radio is a project of the Office of Library and Information Services, and is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.

[00:20:34] [END OF AUDIO]