Courthouse clocks not just a way to look at time, but their workings are way to look back in time

Greg Ricker, facilities manager of the Huntington County Courthouse, cranks one of the building’s four exterior clocks on Tuesday, April 25. The clocks, which require cranking once a week in order to function, have been in continuous use since they were installed in the courthouse in 1907.
Greg Ricker, facilities manager of the Huntington County Courthouse, cranks one of the building’s four exterior clocks on Tuesday, April 25. The clocks, which require cranking once a week in order to function, have been in continuous use since they were installed in the courthouse in 1907. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published on May 5, 2017.

Looking at one of the clocks outside the Huntington County Courthouse isn’t just a way to look at the time — it’s also a way to look back in time.

The clocks were installed in 1907. And while many aspects of the courthouse have changed since that time, the devices in charge of keeping the time have not.

There are four exterior clocks in all at the courthouse. None of them are automated. To keep the clocks running, maintenance workers must trek up to the courthouse attic once a week and wind each one of them up.

It’s rare for municipal buildings to still have clocks like that, says Greg Ricker, the courthouse’s facilities manager.

How rare?

According to Ricker’s research, there’s just one other municipal building in the country like it. And that facility — the Daviess County Courthouse in Gallatin, MO — only features one such clock.

“As far as having four of these spread out like they are, there’s nobody else around like that,” says Ricker.

How have the clocks survived for so long? For starters, says Ricker, the clocks were built well. All four units were constructed by the Seth Thomas Clock Company, a respected manufacturer in Thomaston, CT.

“There’s hardly any wear and tear on any of them gears — and they’ve been running nonstop since 1907,” observes Ricker.

Each clock has a tower that runs from the ceiling of the courthouse’s third floor up to the attic. Each of the towers, which Ricker estimates to be 18 feet tall, contains a cable with stackable weights totaling 250 pounds. The clocks’ weekly winding process sees those weights wound back up to the tops of the towers.

The fact that the units that run the clocks are located in a warm attic is another reason they’re in such good condition, says Ricker. Oftentimes, such units would be situated in bell towers that didn’t afford much protection from the elements, he says.

“Because most of the heat from inside the building keeps those rooms heated up there… there’s not any days that it’s really too cold for the machinery up there,” says Ricker.

The clocks are also still ticking because the courthouse has had maintenance workers through the years that have looked after them devotedly.

“It says huge volumes of the people ahead of me, how they’ve taken care of this stuff over the years and protected them, not let anything happen to them,” says Ricker.

Currently, courthouse maintenance workers Ed Mathews and Devon Mitten are the ones who do the majority of the clock winding. Changes to the building over the years have made that process somewhat difficult from a logistic standpoint, notes Ricker.

“Basically, by the time the one gets to the far one, which is … Warren Street, the other maintenance man can have three of them done, because it’s so hard to get back to it,” he explains. “There’s no easy path with all the remodeling over the years and the IT and the cables and everything that they’ve strung through there.”

Generation after generation of maintenance workers continue to tend to the clocks, though, which speaks to the affinity the old timepieces engender.

“It’s pretty amazing that nobody over the years decided to get rid of them and go to electric clocks,” muses Ricker. “I’m sure maybe that was discussed at some point; I’m almost certain that it was. But luckily, we had people with enough foresight to say, ‘No, we want to keep the originals.’”

Ricker estimates the clocks could run for 100 more years.

“As long as we’re willing to have people go up and wind them,” he says, “they’ll stay that way and pass it on to the next crew that comes in and they can maintain them.”