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Clock winders keep towns ticking

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Posted on August 27, 2018 |
By Rachel Cohen



ClockWinder6990.jpg
Dick Thodal catches his breath high atop Middlebury in the steeple of the Congregational Church of Middlebury one day last month, after he and Tony Rifelj wound the clock. Thodal this week said he kind of misses the weekly chore, which has been on hold while a shroud covers the tower during painting of the church. Independent photo/Rachel Cohen

ADDISON COUNTY — Each Tuesday morning just before 9 a.m., Dick Thodal arrives at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, walks upstairs to the main prayer area, and continues on even further up a narrow, white staircase, tucked to the left of the organ pipes. Clad in his red suspenders, he climbs the old wooden steps inside the steeple until he reaches the boxy room where the town clock ticks along.

Thodal, 70, wears the title of the clock winder, the person in charge of making sure that the weight-driven clock is wound properly each week, and the person responsible for making sure the hands on the two clock faces are accurate.

“It used to be wound by hand, until Fred Dunnington came up with this automatic apparatus,” Thodal said, pointing to a hand-held electric pipe-threading tool in the corner. Dunnington wound the clock from 2003 to 2013, before he handed off the gig to Thodal, the former executive director of Middlebury Community Television.

Middlebury purchased its first town clock in 1852, although it only lasted for 39 years due to its poor design. The town then purchased its second clock—the clock that remains on the congregational church today—in 1891 from E. Howard Clock Company of Boston. The total expense of the clock, including installation, was $585.84.

Around this time, many towns throughout New England purchased public clocks to put on their church steeples.

“It was like everyone had to have one,” Thodal said. “They were all over the Northeast and all over the country. It was sort of a must-have for towns.”

The clock is powered by two weights, one that connects to the hammer that strikes the church bell on the hour, and one that connects to the clock hands. Wooden boxes that were included in the original packaging of the clock hold rocks and old metal bell parts to form the weights, which travel back and forth from the steeple to the lower levels of the church.

“The engineering and construction on this is just phenomenal,” Thodal said.

Until 2007, when Dunnington fashioned the automatic winding tool, the clock winder turned the crank of the clock 275 times each week to bring the weights back up to the steeple.

Thodal said that this was surely a hefty chore, but one that was worthwhile. That is because weight-driven clocks have long been lauded as the most accurate clocks still around. However, many town clocks were at one point electrified.

“They lost their accuracy,” Thodal said about the electric clocks. “Fortunately, this one was never electrified, so it’s really original.”

SHOREHAM’S CLOCK WINDER

The town of Shoreham maintains another “original” clock at the Shoreham Congregational Church.

Ed James, 83, has traveled up the steeple of the church each Saturday morning, for 10 to 15 years, intermittently. But he is all too familiar with the job. James also wound the clock while he was a high school student in Shoreham

In between his two clock winding stints, he has worn many hats, including being a pilot, a farmer, a craftsman, and a writer.

“I do so many different things,” James said. “This is just one of them. It’s just one other thing I do and keep track of.”

Oil the pulleys and cables once in a while; raise and lower the pendulum to adjust the time—these are a few of the things that James has learned about the clock over the years as he’s mastered his understanding of its machinery.

Some aspects of his job have changed, however. Whereas now James uses an automatic winding tool that hinges onto the clock machinery like the one Dunnington designed, he had to wind the clock by hand when he was in high school.

Shoreham’s clock, donated to the town by the family of George H. Catlin in 1906, is a Seth Thomas Clock made in Thomaston, Conn. According to James, the town looked into purchasing an E. Howard Clock like the one in Middlebury, but Howard did not furnish large enough clock faces for the size of Shoreham’s steeple.

A CONTINUING IMPORTANCE

As the clock winders, Thodal and James agree that their job is important to the historical legacy of the two towns, although its purpose may seem somewhat outdated.

“The need (for the town clock) was years ago when we didn’t have cell phones and people lived quite far away from town. The bell kind of kept the town together, and it brought people to church, which was a social thing,” James said.

Thodal also acknowledged that the town clock was likely more monumental for the community when it was first purchased compared to today.

“Historically, it was how people would set their watches. This was considered the final word on time in the town.”

Now, we are quick to check our cell phones, readily available in our hands or pockets, for the time.

Thodal even uses his iPhone to set Middlebury’s clock so that is matches up with the one determined by the U.S. Naval Observatory.

“I’m lucky if I can get it within 5 seconds,” he said.

But, don’t blame Thodal if the clock hands have appeared like they have been stuck on 6:30 as of late; the clock has to be paused while its faces are being painted behind the black sheath.

However, despite living in a digital age, and knowing that fewer people rely on the town clock as part of their daily routine, Thodal and James are still both proud to be the clock winders. 

“It’s part of my life now, and if I’m not going to be here on Saturday, I wind it on Friday,” James said.

“I’ll do it as long as I can,” Thodal added. “In a way, its kind of an honor to be the clock winder.”

   Alternate clock winder Tony Rifelj sizes up the 127-year-old mechanical works that drives the hands on the clock on the tower of the Congregational Church of Middlebury last month after he and Dick Thodal completed the weekly chore of winding the clock by hand.

Independent photo/Rachel Cohen

Thodal told a story of how his daughter visited a church in the Netherlands and said that it listed all of its clock winders back to the 1400s.

“It’s kind of neat,” he said.

Fred Dunnington produced a short list of Middlebury’s recent lock winders. Warren Needham wound the clock from 1954 to 1965, and Leonard “Sonny” Cyr wound it from 1965-2002 before Dunnington took over in 2003.

Beyond the clock winders, many locals have climbed the tower to scribble their names and initials on the walls of the clock room and the belfry, likely as they enjoyed views of the town from above.

While you may rely on a phone for the time, when you glance up at the clock or hear the bells chime on the hour, think of Thodal and James bringing the weights up the steeple, ensuring that the clock hands fall to their correct places and that the day carries on smoothly.

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