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ON THE SCENE: For Larry the bell tolls at the Keene Valley Congregational Church

May 31, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Since 1966, Larry House has climbed three stories up into the steeple of the Keene Valley Congregational Church once a week to wind the church's clock, a task only interrupted by his two-year service in the Navy.

Now 71, he has passed the job on to Jerry Smith while the church decides on whether to electrify the clock and bell strike, and if so, to what degree.

The task is not for the faint of heart or anyone out of shape. Step one is opening the trap door in the church vestibule and using a pully to lower down a long, aluminum ladder. Then one climbs up to an initial chamber wherein there is a wooden ladder that leads to the belfry. Once up there, another wooden ladder leads to the turret clock mechanism above, which has two cranks. One crank operates a cable attached to the clock weight, and another attached to the heavier bell strike weight.

Article Photos

Larry House cranks the clock weight.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

You have the feeling of being Ant-Man standing inside a pocket watch. The clock itself is a marvel of gears. At the top of the mechanism are four rods protruding at right angles that connect to the back of the four clock faces. These rods are attached to the gears that drive the hour and minute hands.

The first record of a turret clock was made in 1198 by the monks of the St. Edmundsbury Abby describing their successful effort to contain a fire in the church tower using water from a clock weight. These first turret clocks only displayed the hour, requiring a person ringing a hand bell to shout out the time. It wasn't until about 1275 when the first fully mechanical turret clock both displayed the time and rang a bell to mark the hour was used in Europe.

Turret clocks soon spread to churches, municipal buildings and the main buildings on large estates, places where lots of people gathered, as a means of helping to regulate the day for all living and working in that community. Back then, time on clocks was set from sundials; thus, the farther north or south in a region could lead to time differences of 30 or more minutes. As people rarely traveled beyond their base community, and travel took so long, those differences mattered little.

The advent of the railway in the 1830s resulted in the need for all turret clocks to keep a similar time so accurate schedules could be set for trains arriving and departing communities. This need, after several years of political wrangling, led to the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time in 1880 as the national standard in Great Britain, a base that quickly became adopted by other countries.

Clock gears are known as the movement. Immediately apparent when observing a turret clock is a small clock face on the front of the movement, known as the setting dial. This dial reflects time on the outward clock faces the community sees and enables House to check and adjust the time. Any changes he makes on the dial are immediately reflected on all four faces.

"The clock is pretty accurate," said House. "It varies year to year depending on the weather, which can make it run faster or slower, but generally I only have to adjust it a couple of times a year."

A rod goes straight up from behind the setting dial, which through the use of the bevel gears drives the four rods that extend to the back of the clock faces and drive the hands. On the back of each face are two gears attached to tiny weights that counter-balance the weight of the hands outside, a mechanism known as the motion work.

As mentioned earlier, two weights provide the energy for turning the gears. The strike weight is the heaviest and is made up of 13 iron bricks, each one and a half inches thick, for a combined weight of between 500 and 600 pounds.

Back in the early 1960s, one of the gears failed, and this strike weight fell straight down, hitting the ceiling of the vestibule, probably landing on the beams as it didn't punch through. Still, the force caused much of the plaster on the vestibule ceiling to cascade down onto the floor below.

Lena Beede, then cleaning the church, heard the noise, saw the destroyed ceiling and called a Mrs. Mitchell, who contacted Fred House, a local handyman. Fred climbed up, saw the problem and moved the iron bricks off the cable so repairs could be made to the ceiling. The clock still worked, but the church bells no longer chimed as many of the teeth from the strike gear had been sheered-off.

Not long after, Fred's son Larry, then in his early teens and who collected and repaired old clocks, asked if he could go up and check out the clock, which he did. Larry felt that he and his dad could fix it. They petitioned the Church Council to let them take over the care and winding of the clock and determine if they could get the required parts to fix the strike mechanism and at what cost.

They were given permission and contacted the Howard Clock Company of Boston, which had installed the clock in 1929. After receiving the broken parts, the company estimated $200 to replace the parts, about $1,200 in today's dollars. The Church Council agreed, and Larry and his dad repaired the clock. In 1966, Larry's dad died, and Larry took over winding the clock, which he's done until this spring. In time, Larry rigged a safety catch to prevent future runaway weights.

"It's no different than a wind-up clock. It's just of a different scale," said Larry. "I usually have to oil it twice a year. It can get really, really cold up here in winter and really, really hot in July and August."

Larry cites personal satisfaction and performing a service for the community as his reasons for winding the clock for the last 53 years.

"To me, it was not a big deal, just something I enjoyed, and it only took 15 minutes out of the week to do," said House. "I'll miss winding the clock to an extent. The last couple of years it's been more of a physical effort to raise and lower the ladder, climb the stairs, and wind the clock and striker, but yes, I'll miss it."

"It's interesting," said Jerry Smith, who has taken over winding the clock. "I enjoy it. I just hope I don't have to keep it going forever. I could never match Larry's 53 years. I'd rather see it go electric, though it does keep me in shape. Just raising and lowering the ladder is a good bit of exercise by itself."

As to what's next, most likely electrifying the clock. According to House and Tom Both, who heads up buildings and grounds for the church, there are two ways of electrifying the clock: one that operates all clock functions or one that keeps the existing mechanism with an automatic electric wind that would raise the weights once a week. Both is seeking bids.

Once the switch is made, one of the few remaining hand-wound turret clocks in the nation will be no more.



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