What does the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Daviess County Courthouse in Gallatin have in common? Both have an original, hand-wound antique Seth Thomas clock. The antique tower clock atop the courthouse has helped keep Gallatin on time since 1909, a year after the courthouse was completed.
The four faces of the clock still operate off its original weight and cable system. A similar Seth Thomas clock, housed in the Smithsonian Institution, has been electrified. So, even some of Daviess County's ol' timers aren't aware of the uniqueness and value of their courthouse timepiece. It is one of the oldest working clock of its kind left in the United States. Quite often, as it tolls the hour and half-hour from its 1,200-pound brass bell, the sound can be heard four miles from town.
To view the clock one has to climb 93 steps into the clock tower. The massive weights which power the mechanism are located below the huge brass bell, and the clock itself, on an even higher level, is reached by a short flight of narrow steps.
The clock was purchased by the Gallatin Commercial Club for $1,500 — a lot of money in those days. And the McShane all-brass bell cost another $1,429.69. It measures 38 inches in diameter. Both were presented to the county by John W. Meade on Jan. 2, 1909. Accepting the gift were George A. McWilliams, presiding judge; William E. Naylor, south judge; and William E. Smith, north judge; and H.F. Lawrence, county clerk.
All four faces of the clock are operated off the same mechanism. The weights which drive the mechanism weigh 2,250 pounds. Back in 1921, one of the cables broke and about half the weights plunged through two floors of the building. The following is an account of the incident, published in April 21, 1921 edition of the Gallatin North Missourian entitled "Crash at the Courthouse — Big 1600 Pound Clock Weight Breaks Loose and Plows Through Two Floors Tuesday:"
About 10 o'clock Tuesday morning occupants of the courthouse thought a bolshevik bomb had been turned loose, or the furnace had blown up, when one of the big 1600 pound weights of the courthouse dome clock broke loose, crashed through the top and third floors, and landed on the second floor. The crash made a terrific noise, and the populace didn't know at the instant what had happened. Very fortunately, the weight hung close to the corner and no one was near on either floor. Had the mishap happened during a session of court the odds are that two to one someone would have been caught in its path.
The big weight is made up of about two dozen smaller weights, these fitting into an iron slot arrangement, and hooked to a wire cable. It was the cable that gave way. The weights did not separate until landing on the second floor. They made a clean cut hole in the six-inch concrete third floor, big enough for a person to go through.
There are two of these 1600 pound weights operating the striking apparatus. The big clock goes on keeping time just as if nothing had happened. It will cost a right neat sum of money to repair the building damage. It is mighty lucky that no one was killed.
It seems that nothing stops the courthouse clock… at long as it's properly wound. About the only repair to the actual clock involves the striking mechanism, and occasionally replacing the wooden hands for the four exterior clock faces. Pigeons have always been a problem. They like to round around on the wooden hands and there have been times—like when the clock reached 9:43 in the afternoon—they became stuck between the hands and had to be rescued.
Such indignity for old Seth Thomas!
A crank, similar to one used to crank a Modal A Ford, is used to wind the clock — a weekly chore. Clockkeepers in most recent years include Buster Gordon, Bill Walker (who accompanied his father, Ted Walker, weekly to wind the clock) and Eric Corwin. Public access to the clockworks is somewhat limited. On the third floor of the courthouse, one must ascend a staircase, usually kept locked, to a fourth floor basically used as attic storage. The massive weights are encased here and you can see the reinforcement railroad iron, concrete and wooden shaft built to guard against a repeat of the 1921 crash. Another narrow, steep flight of stairs leads to the solid brass McShane bell. The last leg of the journey (up into the dome with the clock) is by ladder.
Crash details taken from the April 21, 1921 edition of the Gallatin North Missourian.