The Police Chief and the clock tower
The clock in the steeple of Timothy Frost has to be reset after every power outage, a job the Chief of Police has taken on.
We have a lot to thank departing Police Chief Michael Evans for. He brought his professional demeanor to town law enforcement, coupled with a cheerful and caring disposition, not to mention a great sense of humor. Michael also took on some extracurricular duties on top of being Police Chief. Not only was he the keeper of the peace, he was the keeper of the time.
Michael’s office is on the side of town hall facing the Timothy Frost building, formerly the Timothy Frost Church. Sitting at his desk, he would hear the church clock strike the hour, prompting him to check his watch. Sometimes he noticed the chime was not on the hour, and as a person with a keen awareness of details, this seemed a little bothersome. He would call Gail Dimmick, the pastor at the time, to let her know the clock needed adjustment.
The late Karl Tilden was the clock keeper and had been so for many years. However he was finding it harder and harder to negotiate the stairs up to the clock. Michael offered a helping hand and, after learning from Karl, took over as clock keeper sometime in 2017-2018. Since then he has come to know the clock intimately.
To reach the clock one ascends to the mezzanine, a balcony-like structure overlooking the rear of the sanctuary. A rickety staircase leads from here to the church attic. The interior of the clock tower is reached from the attic via an even more perilous series of stairs. A former clock repairer who was familiar with the bell tower cautioned Michael to go “one at a time and one step at a time,” words that Michael has not forgotten.
The clock itself is a Seth Thomas, bearing a plaque that reads “1898.” The Seth Thomas company, based in Connecticut, started in 1814 with clocks that ran on gears carved from mountain laurel wood. From these beginnings they became the designers and manufacturers of timepieces considered to be among the best. Brass movements were introduced in 1842. The company became a major producer of tower clocks after 1872.
According to historic records the Timothy Frost clock was given to the Methodist church in 1901 by William Porter, a multi-millionaire in Boston who never forgot that Thetford was his birthplace. The clock was shipped to East Thetford, most likely to the train station. We know the destination because pieces of the wooden shipping crate are still in the church attic. The resourceful craftsmen who installed the clock used wood from the crate to construct the steps from the attic to the clock tower. Michael is not joking when he says, “The stairs look as though they were built of scrapwood.”
The dials of the clock were made by C.W. Sayre in his repair shop near the covered bridge that now bears his name.
Originally the clock keeper had to climb to the tower once a week to wind both the clock and the bell chime mechanism. After 110 years of this ritual the movement was electrified in 2011. Michael admires the precision of the new set of gears that were added to step down the rotation of the electric motor to the exact speed for turning the hands of the clock. While there is no need for a weekly winding, the clock still needs to be adjusted after every power outage. Michael found this could be agonizingly slow if the hands had to be moved to adjust the time back — there is a knob that moves the hand forward only by one minute for every turn. However, moving the hands a few minutes is not so hard.
And our Police Chief is not happy unless the clock tells the time accurately. When adjusting the hands he noticed some slackness in the mechanism. It might look good when adjusted, but he learned he had to give the clock a couple of minutes for all the parts to equilibrate before he could tell if it was reading accurately or not. For purposes of adjusting, there is a small clock face inside the tower that transfers the settings to the three large clock faces on the exterior. He checks the chimes against his watch when in his office.
Until recently the clock was serviced once a year by a man named Bob Rodgers, who came from Pennsylvania every fall on his “New England tour,” visiting all the clocks at town halls, churches and other buildings. His business, inherited from his father, was to oil and service the clockwork mechanisms. Bob Rodgers did not like one detail of the clock’s electrification in which electric switches linked the timekeeping mechanism to a separate motor that ran the chime. Bob replaced them with mercury switches that sense the position of the clock mechanism. He also installed a timer so that the clock would not chime at all hours throughout the night. After 9:00 pm it would not chime until 8:00 am the next morning. There was a little idiosyncrasy — on re-starting, the chime mechanism behaved as though the hands were at the top of the dial and thus chimed twelve times at 8:00 am. But recent power outages undid the controller, and the 24-hour chiming has resumed.
Like Michael Evans, Bob Rodgers is moving on, in his case to retirement. The town has contracted with another “clock guy” — Sean Kane of About Time Restorations, specializing in repair and service of tower clocks. As for the role of Timothy Frost timekeeper, perhaps interim Chief Mike Scruggs will inherit that unofficial position.
And Michael Evans’ new career in the private sector will not be devoid of bells. He is going to work at a company specializing in alarm systems. He will be missed in Thetford.
Photo credit: Michael Evans; Title photo: Li Shen