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Archive for Tuesday, July 20, 2004

County time stands still

Courthouse clock getting overdue upkeep overhaul

July 20, 2004

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Father Time finally caught up to a century-old clock high atop the Douglas County Courthouse.

With Bill Bell unwittingly giving him a push.

"One of the faces stopped a couple weeks ago," said Bell, the county's director of buildings and grounds. "It was improper maintenance. It wasn't intentional."

But after two decades of lubricating the old clock in places where it shouldn't have been lubricated -- motor oil poured onto the slow-moving gears every six months inadvertently soaked up dust and grit -- the 1904 Seth Thomas Clock Co. model is finally getting an overhaul.

Monday morning, Bell and assistant Terry Fewel climbed 51 steps into the clock tower at 11th and Massachusetts streets, where they disconnected the clock's three remaining gear dials. The moves left time standing still as of 10:56 a.m., until they removed hands from all the exterior faces a few hours later.

The two maintenance workers unscrewed the gear dials, meticulously labeled their locations with duct tape and packaged them for overnight delivery to a Charles Roeser's timekeeper's shop in Lockport, N.Y.

There they will be disassembled, cleaned, properly lubricated, reassembled and boxed up for delivery back to Bell, who can't wait to get time rolling again. He thinks the process will take two weeks, an investment his bosses figure will be worthwhile.

"It was the clock of its time," said Craig Weinaug, who as county administrator has helped push several preservation projects at the limestone courthouse, a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "We think it requires maintenance at least once every century."

County commissioners are willing to pay the price.

Bill Bell, Douglas County's director of buildings and grounds,
works on taking the hands off a clock face in the county courthouse
tower. Pieces of the clock are being removed for maintenance.

Bill Bell, Douglas County's director of buildings and grounds, works on taking the hands off a clock face in the county courthouse tower. Pieces of the clock are being removed for maintenance.

Roeser's initial overhaul of a gear dial -- started two weeks ago when the clock facing the adjacent Judicial & Law Enforcement Center unexpectedly stopped -- cost the county $400. Each of the remaining three gear dials likely will cost $150 to $200 to recondition, preventative moves to protect what has become a county icon.

"I've always been disturbed when I see a clock tower that doesn't work," said Charles Jones, commission chairman. "That says, to me, that the organization is broken. Here, it gives people comfort to know that, in Douglas County, things work. I know it sounds silly, but that clock makes a difference."



Once the repaired parts return, Bell doesn't plan to let them fall into disrepair again. He's already busy taking photographs, scribbling notes and consulting experts for a new operations manual he's compiling for the next century.

After pouring 20-weight automotive oil on gears meant to remain dry -- and not using specialty oil to lubricate minute- and hour-hand rods meant to be lubricated -- Bell isn't taking any chances.

"We're supposed to use a synthetic, 10-weight, nondetergent oil," Bell said, demonstrating how the oil must be pumped only into small ports, which must be carefully aligned to accept any liquid. "You don't find that except at specialty places, so we were able to order two 8-ounce bottles of it from a company in Pennsylvania. When these things come back, we will be able to maintain this clock properly. ...

Bill Bell stands in the interior of the Douglas County Courthouse
clock tower, working to remove the hands and gear dials from the
tower's 1904 clock. After decades of improper lubrication and
maintenance, the clock is being overhauled. The parts have been
sent to a timekeeper's shop in New York, where they will be
refurbished and sent back to Lawrence. Bell said he expected the
process to take about two weeks.

Bill Bell stands in the interior of the Douglas County Courthouse clock tower, working to remove the hands and gear dials from the tower's 1904 clock. After decades of improper lubrication and maintenance, the clock is being overhauled. The parts have been sent to a timekeeper's shop in New York, where they will be refurbished and sent back to Lawrence. Bell said he expected the process to take about two weeks.

"A lot of people depend on this clock in this town, and it's something that's a wonderful antique. It's something that was so well-made, it's something we need to preserve."

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