Clock atop Jessamine courthouse keeps ticking, but occasionally needs a tune up after 135 years

jwarren@herald-leader.comMay 29, 2014 

NICHOLASVILLE — Time just keeps marching on; but even the finest clock needs some adjustment after 135 years of time keeping.

So officials called in Danny Clark earlier this week to figure out why the north face of the venerable 1879 Seth Thomas tower clock, high atop the Jessamine County Courthouse, has been running a bit slow of late.

Just getting to this clock's works is no small matter.

You scramble up a series of narrow, almost vertical stairs — more like ladders actually — that seem to get increasingly shaky the higher you go.

Six levels above Main Street, you reach the interior of the courthouse clock tower, which is almost pitch dark, blazing hot, and encrusted with decades of accumulated bird droppings.

Fortunately, Clark soon found the problem Tuesday afternoon.

The iron shaft that drives the hands on the north clock face was turning, but the hands themselves were lagging behind.

"They're slipping," Clark said, sweating over his work.

As is the case in many small towns around Kentucky, folks in Nicholasville view their courthouse clock as a piece of history, a landmark and a timepiece. When the clock's north face malfunctioned — the old clock has four faces — they spread the word on social media.

"There were some comments about it on Facebook," Jessamine County Magistrate George Dean said.

A mechanical engineer by training and a passionate lover of old clocks, Clark already knew his way around the courthouse clock. He helped work on it back in the 1980s.

"The thing about these clocks is that they're really works of art," Clark said. "When they were made, I think the skill level was higher than today.

"We jump from job to job now. But back then, people specialized in one field. If you were a clockmaker, you really knew clockmaking."

The Seth Thomas Clock Co. started making tower clocks after it opened in Connecticut in 1813. The one in the Jessamine courthouse is stamped 1879, a year after the courthouse was finished.

The clock tower bears witness to the passage of time, its interior walls dotted with signatures left by countless visitors over more than a century.

One entry, written in white, proclaims: "D.C.S. took charge ... Dec. 13, 1882." Just who D.C.S. was, and what he took charge of, now are part of history.

The clock, originally powered by a system of weights suspended on cables, was converted to electricity about 1960. But most of the original mechanism remains, including the big cast iron bell that strikes the hour.

Clark's prescription to fix the slipping clock hands was simply to tighten a connection. But he said it will take a few weeks to see if the hands keep working properly.

Replacing the old clock mechanism with modern technology would be easy. But Clark said something would be lost in the process.

"It's kind of nostalgic having the old tower clock there," he said.

A little regular maintenance should keep the clock marking off the hours for many years to come, he said.

"On old clocks like this, if it ain't broke you don't fix it," Clark said. "You just maintain what's there. Go monkeying around with the works, and usually you cause more problems than you solve."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255

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