Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
We are located at 421 Summer Street. We are closed but appointments can be made with a 48 hour notice by email to firstname.lastname@example.org . All Vermont Covid 19 rules are followed. We hope to announce a more “return to normal” schedule soon. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.
What Time Is It?
The oldest public timepiece in St. Johnsbury dates back to 1853 and is located in the steeple of the South Church. Later two other public timepieces appeared in the town. The clock at the head of Eastern Avenue was erected by H.W. Randall in 1910. It is an E. Howard & Co. clock of Boston and according to Edward Fairbank’s history – Town of St. Johnsbury – would have cost around $700. St. Johnsbury was not its first home, as it had stood in Grand Central Station in New York for many years. Standing nineteen feet tall, the forty inch dials were enclosed in glass and illuminated after dark. The third clock would have been found near the bottom of Eastern Ave. It was a suspension clock and identified the shop of Lurchin and Lurchin, Jewelers. This was probably a very popular clock as many travelers made their way to the train station. This clock is the only one that no longer stands in St. Johnsbury. This article will reflect on the earliest public clock in the South Church steeple.
Edward Fairbanks tells us that the Village clock in the bell tower of the South Church was purchased by “individuals” and installed in 1853. An article in the Caledonian of 1957 sheds light on the “individuals” that were responsible. The original subscription list was found and dated 1852 and had 77 people listed for a total amount of $195. Among those were Judge Luke P. Poland, U.S. senator; E.C. Redington, cashier of the Passumpsic Bank; Dr. Calvin Jewett and the “Fairbanks Brothers”. Interestingly, this article provided news that a separate list was designated for “a clock to be placed in the east gable end of the church,” for a total of $40. Twenty- seven people wanted to see the time from that vantage point. The 1957 Caledonian article said that this clock was removed a few years ago. It was written that the works had worn out and the clock would not operate all four sets of hands. Curious, I walked around the east gable and looked up. The blank clock face and hands still exist, but all is painted over.
Reeve and Company of New York were the makers of the brass works clock in the steeple. At the time of its installation, it operated all four sets of hands. The clock needed to be wound every third day. Weights were hauled up through channels built in the front corners of the church. The cables were wound on two drums – two cables were required as the clock and the striking device are powered separately. In early Town Reports there was an item listed for “Care of Town Clock” which research reveals a low of $48 dollars to a high of $60 dollars.
One of the longest “winders” of the Town clock was Alden True starting in 1936. He maintained the clock until 1981 with the exception of 1943 to 1945 when he was in the service. He originally wound the clock every three days, but in time found that the proper time could be kept twice a week. The winding was accomplished by a two foot crank. Later in his time as the clock winder he was helped by his brother Gerald as Alden had suffered a heart attack. I can remember the True brothers – one short and the other taller and members of the South Church. The other interesting story regarding the winding of the clock was daylight savings time or other times when the hands needed adjusting. This required three people; the winder, a person on the ground looking up at the hands, and another in the belfry who could relay what the ground person was calling out and he in turn relayed instructions to Mr. True. Over time cables had been replaced and new parts had to be duplicated. Sometimes the clock might stop and other times the strike of the clock was thought to be too loud. But since 1853 the clock has maintained its job of telling folks if they are running late, on time or early!
A new chapter began in 2018 for South Congregational Church, as it became part of the St. Johnsbury Academy campus and is now called South Church Hall. Interestingly, the Church’s location had been chosen because of its proximity to the growing Academy and the growing E. T. Fairbanks Company. A new chapter for the clock has been revealed too. No longer does anyone have to climb the stairs and wind the clock. The clock has been automated by D’Avanza Clock Repair,LLC of Goffstown, N. H. The Academy Class of 1970 who had their 50th reunion in 2020 chose to use their donations for this project.
Friday the 26th of March, 2021 was the best day of the week for me, as I was shown the clock room by Kurt Zschau, Director of Facilities at the Academy. Climbing up well worn wooden stairs until I was level with the clock was the very small clock room with so much history. The pendulum shaft catches your attention first and then the workings of the clock that do not reveal their age. Behind the workings are the drums where the cables were once wound. The crank hangs on the wall as does a framed list of some of the “winders.” My questions about the transformation brought Bill Simons over from the staff to tell how he had been with the clock folks from N.H. Bill’s height is such that he can’t stand upright in the room! Quiet by nature, but enthusiastic about this piece of history, he pointed out changes from the automation piece to the left of the clock that connects to the original workings on the right. No more voice relays from the ground to the belfry, the crank hangs silently but the pendulum keeps moving! And Bill’s name is the last one on the list of winders.
Sometimes my enthusiasm for history drives others to shake their heads, but I can’t help but think of all the history that the faces of the clock have seen and what stories they could tell.