Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Climbing the tower of Lucas County


The bonus after yesterday's rededication of the restored courthouse clock --- 123 years to the day and hour after it started running at 10 a.m. on May 22, 1894 --- was a chance to visit our collective timepiece in its tower home.

First, however, we listened as the big tower bell chimed 10 o'clock, then Steve Laing, county supervisor who led the restoration drive, thanked everyone involved --- committee members, others who had helped out, Rory DeMesy of Minneapolis who did the restoration work and, especially, the generous donors who made the project possible. I talked a little about Lucas County's courthouse history, commencing in 1850; then it was time for cookies and coffee.


Steve then offered anyone interested a tour of the tower, an area of the courthouse not visited that often, and several of us accepted.


The ascent begins with this short flight of stairs, ending at a door, located just off the courtroom lobby on the top floor of the courthouse.


Beyond the door, the long flight of stairs doubles back on itself and climbs to a landing. Straight ahead at the top is the entrance to the courthouse attic, used for storage. To the left, a door leads into a low-ceilinged, windowless room.


This room is located just above the second-floor windows in the base of the courthouse tower, behind the carved stone that identifies the "Lucas County Court House."

As you're coming up the stairs, on your right, generations of people --- mostly students --- have engraved their names in black-painted plaster.


The clock pendulum descends through a slot in the ceiling and swings back and forth in this small room, guarded by new framing that also adds support to the floor of the clock chamber above. The big lead weights that are wound up, then descend to power the clock, travel in chutes built into the corners of this level of the tower.


The metal boxes, probably brought from the 1858 courthouse, contain county records that date at the least back into the 1860s and most likely always have been stored here.


It looks as if this low room originally was open, but has been subdivided and the area around the pendulum, now used for storage, insulated. The pendulum and weights, removed when the clock was electrified during the 1970s, were kept at the Lucas County Historical Society museum and returned to the county when the restoration project began.

The white door, just visible in the second photo above, leads through a newer wall to what once was an open staircase to the clock chamber immediately above. The workmanship on the stairway and other tower details is extraordinary, considering the fact this never was intended to be a public area.


This is a much shorter flight, climbing north along the tower's west wall into the many-windowed clock chamber.


Note that there are few if any cracks in the original plaster applied 123 years ago directly onto masonry in the tower.

The clock chamber, lighted on all four sides of the tower by large windows, is for the most part filled by an elaborate wooden case, entirely as originally built, that contains the Seth Thomas clockworks. There's just enough room around it for the stairs leading up to the chamber on the west and a narrow walkway around the north, east and south walls of the case.

The east windows look out on the courthouse's slate roof; the south windows, out across the finials on the west gable;


the west windows, onto the west side of the square;


and the north windows onto the north side of the square.


Because the clockworks case takes up much of the clock chamber, it's almost impossible to get a decent image of it. Although the case has never been altered, it has been "decorated" over the years with more of those messages scratched into the finish. The viewing window is in the north side of the case.


It is topped by a heavy cornice.


And this elaborate door into the case, which Steve is pushing a little farther open, is on the east side.


Here's how the beautifully refurbished clockworks look.


And here, you can see the pendulum swinging through its slot in the floor.


Rory DeMesy disassembled the clockworks and took them home with him to Minneapolis during March of 2015, then brought them home last November. Alterations made when the works were electrified during the 1970s had been removed, missing parts re-installed and the whole affair cleaned and polished to within an inch of its life. After that, the entire clock was reassembled in its original configuration in the tower and the mechanism that allows it to operate four clock faces simultaneously reactivated. New hand were installed on the clock faces, too.

The only "modern" alterations to the original are electric winders that crank the weights up automatically when the clock needs to be "wound." A hand crank originally was used for this purpose and at some point a bicycle was rigged up to allow leg power, rather than arm power, to be used.

The stairs end at the second level of the clock tower, but access to the bell chamber on the third level (behind those exterior louvers) and the room behind the clock faces on the fourth level is gained by climbing the metal ladder behind Patti Bisgard (who had just climbed down it) in this photo. The ladder, they tell me, is much sturdier than it looks.


Dave Laing and Denny Bisgard climbed all the way to the top; Patti stopped at the bell chamber.


Dave took this shot of the bell, which as you can see was cast in St. Louis during 1883. And that's another little puzzle. Since it's 10 years older than the clock, where did it come from?


There's some possibility that this was a bell added to the 1858 courthouse years after it was built, then recycled when the old courthouse was torn down during January and February of 1892. There was no clock in the 1858 courthouse, but its big bell was used regularly to summon residents to meetings or other events at the courthouse or in its park.

Or the bell may have hung originally in another Chariton building prior to 1894. Or it may just have been purchased elsewhere and imported as the courthouse was nearing completion. We may never know the answer.

2 comments:

Chris Kuball said...

If you or someone you know has a fish-eye lens. That'd be better suited to taking pictures up in the clock chamber.

Ventured up there in elementary school in the 90s. Don't remember if I etched my mark into the tower though. Do remember it was loud as heck for the top of the hour chimes.

Chris Kuball said...

Also... the police chief's 'mark' can be found in your pictures. :)