It was already dark when I came to my desk to write tonight; even the stars and moon have covered themselves with a blanket of clouds on this bleak winter evening. It is a wonderful set of incongruent technologies, but all I hear as I sit in the glow of my laptop screen is a Seth Thomas mantle clock ticking atop an overstuffed bookcase.
I would like to say that the clock — one of two that I own — is an heirloom inherited from my grandparents, but it isn’t; I bought both pieces at auction over the years and have never regretted it. The clocks were probably made during the roaring days of the Jazz Age, perhaps a bit later, but since the makers quit putting a manufacture date on them about 1918, I really can’t say for sure.
They do, however, remind me of days gone by, of the nights I spent with my father’s parents, who lived next door to us. There, in a house originally built without electricity in mind, one that had a coal room and a kitchen pantry and an outhouse that sat surrounded by hollyhocks, I’d head to bed after the late news to listen to the tick of a single clock that sat on a piano in the sewing room. The clock’s regular breathing was the only sound in the house, other than that of the shifting coal in the furnace’s belly in the winter or the rustle of light curtains in the summer breeze. I either went to sleep with its ticking in my ears, or stayed awake awhile to stare into the blackness of the ceiling.
My grandparents’ clock chimed on the half-hour and hour, as do mine, and I came to hear its strike as a normal part of the sounds of the place; every few days, my grandmother would wind it, not an unusual sight in those days, for we also wound the alarm clocks on our nightstands, even the wristwatches that fewer and fewer of us bother with now.
Seth Thomas clocks were perhaps the most popular brand in America for most of a century. Their namesake, born in Connecticut in 1785, got his start working for other clockmakers. Through careful and frugal management, Thomas’ company shifted from making clocks with wooden components to those made of brass by the mid-1840s. After Thomas died in 1859, his sons continued to manufacture clocks, expanding their line to make a variety of timepieces. They made and sold so many clocks that it still isn’t unusual to find them selling in antique shops or online, or ticking away on mantles and bookcases just as they have for decades.
Much more rare than the clocks themselves are the people who still repair them. When I was young, it was not unusual to find a clock or watch repair shop — usually also a jewelry store — in every neighborhood or small town; Hood’s in Twelve Points and Faraco’s in Clinton come to mind now.
John Walker owns Wabash Watch and Clock Company, moving to his south end location 20 years ago. Now 48, he became interested in repairing clocks and watches after training at Gem City College in Quincy, Illinois, starting to study there just a few days after graduating from Terre Haute South Vigo High School. But, as is often the case, he’s learned most of what he knows about clocks through experience.
“When you go to school, you learn the basics,” Walker says, “but it is just enough to get into trouble. You really don’t start to learn how to repair watches and clocks until you start working on them.”
“I apprenticed under a gentleman to do silversmithing while I was still in junior high school,” Walker says. “I had a counselor at South named Pete Varda, and he found the college for me since I was already drawn to studying jewelry design and repair, engraving, and clock and watch repair.”
“I have no regrets at all [about going into clock repair],” Walker added. “It took me two years to get into the trade; I worked at Hillman’s (then on Wabash Avenue) and took less money just to get my foot in the door.”
And, over the years, he’s seen a lot of Seth Thomas clocks.
“Oh, I work on a lot of them; maybe more than any other clock. There are still so many of them that their value isn’t really high [on most of them], but they are so functional. If it has a mechanical mainspring and bushings, it can be rebuilt; any mechanical clock can be. I have people come in with a $15 alarm clock, but they don’t want it rebuilt because it is worth much; they want it rebuilt because it was their grandpa’s.”
Knowing that he is in a line of business that may be a dying art, Walker takes pride in what he does, hanging on to old watches and clocks and spare parts, knowing that someday he’ll need “a pin or a watchband link” that he can no longer get. “Some brands don’t even sell parts anymore; they have to be sent back to a factory.”
Although he’s worked on the most expensive watches and clocks made — Cartier and Patek Philllippe came to mind — Walker says he’s still “a stick in the mud” and would rather work on a mechanical clock like a Seth Thomas. “I like them because they just continue to work.”