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Time-honored task; Clock winder keeps things moving with weekly visits and a little 10W40.

Byline: Lynne Klaft Photography by Tom Rettig

Clock winders and clock keepers harken back to the Middle Ages, a time-honored profession and calling.

John W. Spencer holds true to that calling and has been faithfully climbing the stairs of the First Church of Christ Unitarian's clock tower in Lancaster to wind the 1895 Seth Thomas tower clock for the past 12 years.

The clock must be wound once a week, every week. The climb to the second floor loft and then another staircase to where the clock mechanism room is located is one for the hale and hardy. The 1816 Bulfinch-designed church is heated by wood stoves, and the clock room gets chilly in the winter.

"There was no floor here in the loft in 1895 and you had to climb a ladder to get further upstairs,'' said Spencer.

The railing on the staircase to the clock room is original, smooth and well-polished by all the hands that have gripped it in the 119 years since it was installed.

The 74-year-old retired communications and design electrical engineer moved to Lancaster 25 years ago and sits on the church's Board of Directors, is a member of the Buildings & Grounds Committee and is one of three clock winders. Matthew Locke and Win Clark share the duty, making sure the clock keeps on ticking.

Spencer figured out that the clock has been stopped for about six months during its 119 years, mostly for repairs. The clock was quieted for about 30 days in 2010 when the bell tower was being restored.

"The striking of the bell (on the hour) was driving the construction people crazy,'' said Spencer with a smile, adding that the ticking has a calming effect, but standing in the tower when the 1822 Paul Revere bell is struck can be loud.

Clock and bell towers like the First Church's had an important purpose when they were first built. Before the 18th century home clocks were rare, and the first clocks were used to call the community to work, emergencies or to church with bells. Clocks and bells were put in towers in the center of town so that the ringing could be heard over long distances. As they became more common, dials and clock faces were added to the outside of the tower so people could tell what time it was.

Horologia, from Greek, means to tell the hour and was used to describe very early mechanical clocks, including water clocks. The word "clock'' is from the Celtic words clocca and clogan; both mean "bell.''

The earliest dated turret or tower clock in Britain is located at Dunstable Priory and is recorded in the annals of the church as being installed in 1283. It is probably a verge and foliot clock because it was mounted over the rood screen where refilling a water clock would be extremely difficult.

Spencer's job is to make sure the clock is properly wound and to keep it oiled. Winding the clock raises 350 pounds of weights about 18 feet. Winding the weights for the bells takes a little longer; they weigh 1,400 pounds. Each must be done every week with its own crank.

Keeping the clock well-oiled is a matter of knowing the different points that need it. Spencer figures he uses about a quart of oil a year on the mechanism, 10W40 and 10W30 work well. The lubricating is done once a month; the cables on the weights are oiled every 4 to 6 months.

"You can't over-oil it, if in doubt, give it an extra squirt. A lot of these old clocks have been electrified, but it's the kiss of death, because no one remembers that it needs to be oiled,'' said Spencer.

"If you keep oiling it, it should keep going another 125 years; the cables need to be changed every 60 or 70 years. That's probably one day's work,'' said Spencer.

What about daylight savings time when clocks are set forward or back, spring and fall?

"In the spring, you crank it forward. You can't crank the clock backwards, so you just stop it for an hour,'' he explained.

There is no parts catalog for the clock; the Seth Thomas Co. has been out of business for decades. Spencer has made repairs to the clock, fashioning pieces by hand.

Every once in awhile the clock hands have to be adjusted. Spencer uses a mirror that is stuck through a port in the tower wall, reaches out with the other hand and while looking at the mirror moves the hands so that all three faces of the clock are synchronized.

"This old clock went on ticking right through the ice storm of 2008; my wife, Sarah, had to climb up and wind it. I was laid up after being hit by a car. The tower gets hit by lightning three or four times a year. it is the highest point in this part of town, but the clock is well shielded,'' he said.

One of the church's clock winders must have been a poet at heart, and perhaps wrote this poem on one of the clock room walls while he waited an hour during fall's daylight savings time:

"You dear old clock how hard you work. You are always so faithful you never never shirk. We look on your face which is always bright. And we listen each hour for the bell that you strike.''
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Title Annotation:Magazine
Author:Rettig, Lynne Klaft Photography By Tom
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 7, 2014
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