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Historic clock gets 8 new hands

After 80-hour work weeks, an Ohio clockmaker expects to have the bell ringing hourly by week’s end.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 5, 2001


DADE CITY -- Phil Wright was back in town Monday, preparing to get his hands on the historic courthouse clock.

photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Assistant clock repairman Bob Cordle applies a primer coat to the metal numbers on the west face of the historic clock at the Dade City Courthouse. Clockmaker Phil Wright of Ohio has been restoring the clock.
After two months of 80-hour weeks restoring the antique clock atop the old courthouse, Wright returned from his Ohio workshop this week with a restored mechanism and new wooden hands he made for each of the clock's four faces.

The old wooden hands -- thought to be original equipment -- had disintegrated after decades of Florida heat, sun and rain.

Restoring the turn-of-the-century clock was a chore, Wright said. But it's a labor he loves.

"I really stayed on this one hard," Wright said. "Days, nights, weekends. There was a lot to it, and a lot that kept popping up."

One of only a few people in the country capable of rebuilding antique tower clocks, Wright took the Dade City clock to his Ohio home in April and took it apart. Some gears and parts were too damaged to reuse, and Wright said he had to fashion many of the parts himself in his workshop.

The most visible new parts are the hands, the largest about 40 inches long, crafted out of pine and brass. They replace the hands that had deteriorated to the point where all but two fell apart. The surviving set was returned to the county.

Wright said he stuck with wood as a material for the hands because wood was good enough for the first 90 or so years of the clock's existence.

"I don't like to mess with a good thing," he said. "The old ones held up pretty well. Why change that?"

But most of the new parts and tiny details Wright toiled over will remain out of sight for all but a few people.

In the restoration, Wright came across detailed scrollwork buried under years of paint on the clock's frame. He stripped the grime and paint and restored the antique etchings.

And where the clockmaker's nameplate, attached to the instrument by Boston clockmaker E. Howard Watch and Clock Co., had been removed sometime in the past, Wright had a replica created to replace it.

Because the only way to the clock's perch in the silver-domed courthouse tower is to climb a ladder into a hole in the County Commission chamber ceiling, then go through a series of hidden staircases in the stuffy attic, most people will never see Wright's work up close.

But for Wright, just knowing that the job was done right is important.

Wright and assistant Bob Cordle spent Monday applying primer paint to exposed clock face surfaces. They plan to have the clock running and the bell ringing on the hour by the end of the week.

The $62,000 clock restoration caps a $2.3-million overhaul at the courthouse, which opened in 1909. The clock project was paid for with money from the county's general fund.

The next stop for Wright will be Greenfield, Ind., where the clock atop the 19th century Hancock County Courthouse has stopped.

"As soon as he gets done there, he'll be coming our way," Hancock County Auditor Joe Settles said. "We're waiting for him."

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