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An old Yankee clock winds up in Dixie

By John Gould / March 14, 2003



Some years ago, now, a clockmaker named Richard Freeman kept his shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Mr. Freeman is no longer with us, but his shop is still there, now a sweet shop across the street from St. Ann's Protestant church, and otherwise his name is remembered only in the books about early clocks and clockmakers.

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Mr. Freeman used metal movements in his clocks, and fashioned the tall cases for them at his own wood-working bench. He was in business before American colonial days, and it is hard to find a Richard Freeman clock if you would like to have one among your priceless antiques. I heard one strike 6 p.m. just the other day.

We know little about Nicholas Edwards, who was a major in the British Army as well as my ancestor. He came to America with the military garrison that changed New Amsterdam to New York. In his time the Royal Military had two kinds of officers, and we don't even know which kind he was. One kind was the up-from-ranks career soldier who worked his way and was for real. The other would be the ne'er-do-well younger son of a peer, who would not inherit a title but could wangle an honorary commission.

We don't know about Nicholas, but suspect he was doubtless one or the other. While he was stationed in Ireland as part of Britain's forever-unresolved "Irish Question," he bought a clock from Richard Freeman in Enniscorthy. Subsequently he was moved to America with the soldiers sent to handle affairs in New York, and he brought the clock among his household goods.

Having this clock in our household has caused me to explain countless times that it does not have wooden works. People who see the clock almost always ask if it does. It does not. Wooden works were used by early American clockmakers who couldn't get or afford metal movements made in Europe. They are not necessarily a measure of antiquity. And as the wood reacted to changes in atmospheric moisture, they were not reliable.

Mr. Freeman used brass movements. His clock, my clock, has two driving weights of 14 and 16 pounds, winds with a crank key, and needs weekly winding. Its strike is higher-pitched than you expect; most folks think it will sing bass. The wooden case is not embellished, and overall there has been no "restoring" of Mr. Freeman's original work on either movement or case. I'd say the clock was never meant to be ornamental, but was a kitchen utility meant to tell time and nothing more.

As to ancestor Edwards, what little we have about him includes the fact that he was a prudent investor. While serving as a soldier, he picked up considerable New York City real estate in favorable locations such as Times Square. His estate has become mythical, and several times groups of "Edwards heirs" have appeared in probate court seeking their inheritance. As many times, also, a judge has ruled against them. But I do have his clock, which is now down south.

Nobody has been able to tell me how the clock came through the generations to my Grandfather John, for whom I was named. In 1914 I first met him, and he said the clock was to be mine. I've always been glad I have it instead of Times Square.

There has been no great problem keeping the clock running. Driven by weights, it has no springs, and we've been able to find a clock expert when one was needed. One such expert was most helpful. I'd been careful not to bump the clock when close by, supposing it to be easily bruised. This clock man, when I asked if he'd tinker it, said, "Eyah, fetch it over, and come a rainy day I'll squint at it."

Presuming it to be fragile I asked about wrapping it in quilts, and he said, "No need, just chuck it in the wheelbarrow and trot it along down!" He added, "Doubt if you'll hurt it none." But I always treated Old Timer with respect and tried not to bump him. I approached him with a bit of awe and, as I cranked up his weights, I felt rapport with the many others in generations past who had done the same. Done the same and moved long, and Old Timer ticked away the centuries. I freely admit that I usually greeted Old Timer with an esoteric password, "Well, Watchman Nicholas, what of the night?" And he would say, "Advance and be recognized!"

Lately we liquidated, and gave Old Timer to our son, who retired from business and moved down south, taking Old Timer along. Settled in Dixie, he looked about for a clock man to check out the clock, oil it, and make sure Major Edwards was ready for new duty. Our telephone here in Maine rang and it was this clock man to tell us he was about to start Old Timer in ceremonial fashion. He asked me, "What do you think I had to do to start Old Timer?"

"Wind him," I said.

He said, "Listen!"

So here in Maine on our telephone we heard our clock strike six down south. Then our daughter-in-law came on the line and said, "It is six o'clock Yankee Time in Dixie!"

The Civil War is over.

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