Time on his hands: Restoration under way for 1936-era courthouse clock

Time on his hands: Restoration under way for 1936-era courthouse clock

December 2nd, 2013 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Keith Henley makes adjustments while explaining how the Seth Thomas clock mechanism works in the Franklin County Courthouse clock tower.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Keith Henley has spent the past five years restoring the clock mechanism.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Keith Henley makes adjustments to the mechanism.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

This is an exterior view of the clock tower on the Franklin County Courthouse in Franklin County, Tenn.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

WINCHESTER, Tenn. - The 77-year-old Franklin County Courthouse clock hasn't worked reliably for most of Keith Henley's lifetime.

The 28-year-old Sewanee, Tenn., native has been working the past five years to get the old 1936-era Seth Thomas No. 15 tower clock back to its former glory.

But it's a work in progress, Henley admits. Maybe even a slowly ticking battle of wills.

One of the clock's four faces was about 20 minutes slow Wednesday, and two of the others weren't quite on the mark either. And the bell hadn't rung in the day or two since Henley last visited, according to workers at the courthouse.

"The clock itself is right on time, but there's a gearbox that I had to take all the way apart and put back together," Henley said.

He reassembled the gearbox loosely so nothing would bind and break, but that meant the aging fittings could slip, an event made more likely by the cold weather.

And then they slipped.

And the chain that drives the bell striker derailed.

There was no sign of frustration on Henley's face, though. He likes the challenge.

Henley won't be satisfied merely to get the clock working again; he wants to return it to its near all-mechanical, original state. The original had electric motors used only to rewind the clock when the weights reached the floor and tripped the mercury switches -- which triggered the bell and winder mechanism. Otherwise, it was purely mechanical, he said.

"If you had come here in the 1930s, '40s and probably all the way up into the '50s, this would have been a pendulum-driven clock just like any other you'd have seen in America," Henley said.

Besides the wind and Henley's voice, the only sound in the clock tower came from the pigeons scurrying around the roof in the icy wind.

"In the 1950s, a lot of companies said the pendulums were not accurate, and people didn't like climbing up to wind them," he said.

In the middle of the last century, many of the country's courthouse clocks were fitted with electric motors that performed all the required functions and eliminated the need for much of the original equipment. In the case of the Franklin County clock, the old weights and gears were left behind. The two mercury switches were removed but can be replaced.

"Like a member of my association said, they turned it into a 'Rube Goldberg machine,'" he said, referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist known for drawing elaborate mechanical devices -- or "inventions" -- that often performed the simplest tasks.

"How come the bell quit working?" asked courthouse officer Jack Bell, who was curious about the silence and the lagging times and had followed Henley up the steep, knee-high steps that lead past the bell room up to the clock tower.

"In the '60s and '70s it ran good, but it started having problems in the late '70s and early '80s," noted Bell, a longtime officer with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.

The chain on the electric motor that drives the bell striker derailed when the motor slipped forward, Henley told Bell.

Henley started the work about five years ago after he became assistant caretaker of the Breslin clock at Sewanee: The University of the South. That clock is a Seth Thomas No. 16, a slightly bigger brother to the courthouse clock.

"Everybody sees all the little parts in their Seth Thomases at home; this is the same thing, just a bigger scale," he said.

Henley said fellow National Association of Clock and Watch Collections members Jim and Renee Coulson, of Ooltewah, and Walter Wilson, of Huntsville, Ala., helped him with the project. Sgt. Tim Carpenter, a corrections officer with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, sped the clean-up of decades of grease and pigeon droppings by suggesting using a Dremel tool fitted with a fine wire brush to polish the brass and bronze parts after they had soaked in kerosene and dishwashing detergent.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday the electric motor and chain mechanism that tolls the hour struck once, then the chain popped off.

"This is the fun part," Henley said, grabbing the well-greased chain and slipping the motor into a new alignment so the sprockets lined up.

Henley triggered the motor again for another seven chimes of the bell, and when the chain derailed yet again, finished it off with three by hand so the clock would have the right count at 11 o'clock.

"There it is!" he said. "One of the gears that had been taken off and cleaned is about one inch different than the main drive up here."

One more victory down, a hundred or so to go.

The countless hours Henley has spent, first cleaning out the pigeon-infested clock room, then disassembling the clockworks and cleaning each piece, would have cost the county a fortune, County Mayor Richard Stewart said.

"We're very much indebted to Keith," Stewart said. "This has been a project of his for a long while. He just took it on himself and asked if he could do it, and we really appreciate it from the county's side. He's to be commended for all the hard work he's done.

"It saved the county a lot of money," Stewart said.

Local residents have often asked about repairing the clock, and now it's coming true, he said.

"For people who grew up here, it has special meaning for them," Stewart said.

Franklin County historian Jerry Limbaugh says the 1936 county courthouse was built as a Works Projects Administration project during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency.

Limbaugh provided Franklin County Historical Society records about the courthouse -- the county's third -- which noted its "distinctly odd feature" was the central tower containing a clock and bell, giving way to a county courthouse design tradition.

Henley said he'll keep tweaking the clock over the coming months until it tolls on the hour with the regularity expected of the county's timepiece. But his future plans for it will require a little more snooping around for Seth Thomas parts and retooling work.

"I'm hoping to one day find enough parts to get it back to mechanical operation," he said.

That's OK; he's got all the time in the world.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.