Ray Crippen: Right on time: The many faces of Worthington's clocks
WORTHINGTON -- Daily Globe editor Ryan McGaughey asked for contributions to this year's Daily Globe Super Edition. "The theme is 'Faces and Places,'" Ryan said.
I said, "Well -- sure. I will try to shape a story." I thought to myself -- to begin with -- it might be well to focus on the whole world.
Through several recent centuries, some of the most familiar faces on every farm, at every crossroads, in every village, town and city have been the faces of clocks. Leading that list might be Big Ben, towering in London.
The faces of clocks became a part of everyone's life. The faces of clocks were so familiar even children did not need numbers to know 12 is at the north and six is at the south, nine at the west and three at the east. Along with reading and writing, kids learned of 10-to-four and learned 10-to-four is the same as 3:50. Half past six is the same as 6:30. Twelve is noon if the sun is shining, and 12 is midnight if the moon is shining.
In some houses, clocks were grandfather clocks five feet tall, six feet tall, which chimed every quarter-hour and bonged out a full count at the top of every hour. There were mantel clocks on dining room buffets and pendulum clocks on parlor china cabinets. Alarm clocks with bells on top at bedsides. Some clocks had Arabic numbers, and some had Roman numerals. Each had to be wound once a day, or once a week.
Each had its own distinctive face.
Worthington had its succession of those familiar faces, as did Brewster and Adrian, Jackson and Heron Lake, Fulda and Avoca.
It is likely -- oh, it is certain, really -- that there was a pendulum clock on the wall of Worthington's first depot. This would be a face the whole town of early settlers came to know. Time was important at depots. Trains ran on timetables. "The 6:10 is at Sibley, on schedule ..."
Telegraphers at every depot sent and copied telegrams. Each telegram required a time of arrival.
One of Worthington's most famous faces was found inside the small show window of Max Hurlbert's jewelry store on Worthington's 10th Street in a complex that now is part of El Azteca. This in the 1930s, the 1940s.
Through some arrangement someone may remember still, Max Hurlbert's clock was connected with Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). If you wanted to know the precise correct time, you could find it on the familiar face of Max's clock. Businessmen might check their watches against the clock in the jewelry store window every day. Residents doing their weekly grocery shopping might pause to check their watches with GMT.
In a later time, a Western Union office was located on Third Avenue, opposite the courthouse. The clock in the WU office, which also was famous for its precision, was inside, but people along the street popped in to check the hour and the minute. Another familiar face.
Worthington never saw what surely would have been the most famous of all of Worthington's faces. Architect Albert Bryan, who designed Nobles County's 1894 red brick courthouse, actually designed a clock tower, not a dome. There was a space for a round clock face on each of the tower's four sides. Nobles County's commissioners never got around to authorizing the purchase of a clock, however. Through 80 years, there were only green-painted boards plugged into those spaces designed for faces.
The owner/builder of what now is Worthington's Bank of the West ordered a tall, freestanding clock at the corner of 11th Street and Fourth Avenue. Harry Dirks, bank president in that era, believed proper banks should give passersby the time of day. This became another of Worthington's familiar faces. One day in the passing of decades it was removed.
Worthington banks are still offering the time. The prominent sign on Rolling Hills Bank flashes time and temperature for drivers and pedestrians along 10th Street and Third Avenue. United Prairie Bank has time and temperature, along with public announcements, for everyone coming and going at the post office. First State Bank Southwest does the
same for traffic along Oxford Street.
But. Changing times. None of these contemporary bank time pieces has a familiar face. The old clock faces are replaced by "digitals."
This brings to mind Worthington's most famous clock, which was no clock at all. Through the first half of the 20th century, the shrill steam whistle on the roof of Worthington's lakeside power plant gave residents the most important times of day. The siren sounded at 7 a.m., time for Worthington Creamery workers to begin their days. The whistle blew once again at 12, high noon at Worthington, time for dinners. Then -- one o'clock -- dinner hour is ended. The final siren of the day came at 10 p.m. Curfew.
The power house siren also sounded urgent summons for police, firefighters, all of those known now as first responders. "Listen! The fire whistle! Can you see smoke?"
Some of the most familiar faces at Worthington were only rarely seen by parents and adults of the town. When Worthington Grade School opened in September 1931, there was a wall clock front and center in every classroom. Marvelous clocks. Electric clocks. The only nonwinding clocks some of the earliest scholars had ever seen. There also was a central mechanism that "clicked the clocks" to keep them all in sync and all on correct time. School kids keep their eyes on clocks. The Central clocks were closely watched faces.
Through much of Worthington's first half-century, the only "personal clocks" were pocket watches. Pocket watches were the pride and possessions of (mostly) men. Through the week, a pocket watch might be tucked into a bib pocket of a blue denim overall. On Sunday, when the Sunday suits came out, the pocket watches would be clipped to a vest chain. The watches would be tucked into a vest pocket and the vest chains -- silver chains and gold chains -- would be on display behind the open suit coats.
Then, as always, watches were important. One familiar tableau was railroad conductors standing at carside holding a pocket watch at the end of a vest chain and watching the minute hand move to the departure time. On the very second, often, the conductor would signal the engineer. "All aboard!" We're on our way.
One of the most popular personal possessions of all the ages came into general use in the 1920s. Wrist watches. For the owners, these became faces as familiar as the faces of family members.
Wrist watches could be had for a dollar or two from Sears, but there was no telling how much was paid for the best of the watches. Bulova. Waltham. Elgin. Hamilton. Later, Rolex. It was not only the watches that were precious, but also the watch bands. Most watches came with leather bands, or alligator bands. Beyond these there were jeweled bands, even bands with diamonds. The earliest watch bands came with buckles or clasps. By the 1950s, stretch bands began to be universal.
There probably never was a more popular or prized graduation gift than a wrist watch. Watches for graduates were fine watches, and most of them probably exist still, in a box or drawer, if not in actual use. There must be tens of thousands of them across the land. Tens of thousands of familiar faces.