Jim VanOrsdel
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Monroe, NC



A Union County landmark's face-lift is almost complete as restoration workers put finishing touches on an almost 100-year-old link to the past.

Crews last week installed a new clock mechanism, clock faces and number dials in the 1904 clock tower of the Old County Courthouse. County officials expect the clock to be keeping time and chiming the hour by the Fourth of July.

The completion marks the end of a tireless eight-month process, headed up by the county's personnel director Mark Watson, who first discovered the clock's level of disrepair back in November. Watson spent lunch hours and other bits of free time climbing inside the tower, cleaning and figuring out the next step.

He said others have volunteered their time or charged much less than usual because they wanted to be a part of history.

"It holds a certain fascination with people; people cherish it," Watson said. "I've had so many people relate to me their memories of growing up in Monroe and hearing the clock strike. You can't replace that. It's a part of this community and part of our culture."

The project cost the county about $61,000, Watson said. About two-thirds of that is the cost of repairing the clock tower, he said.

Charlotte clockmaker Jim Van-Orsdel restored a winding clock mechanism the county bought for about $18,000 from a collector in Pittsburgh. The clock is from the same era as the tower's original clock - the serial numbers of the two E. Howard clocks are separated by only 119 digits. The company probably made about 5,000 tower clocks from the mid-1800s to 1938, VanOrsdel said.

Unlike the tower's original clock, which chimed on the hour and half-hour, the newly installed one will chime only on the hour. Watson said the county could have switched the parts that determine how often the clocks chime, but decided not to. That's because he wanted to keep the Pittsburgh clock as it was originally made.

The county also stayed true to historical details by returning the clock faces to their original appearance. During a renovation in the 1980s, parts of the dial originally painted white were painted black, Watson said.

Now, the only black parts of the face are the numbers, hands and minute marks. Watson discovered that was the clock's original look after seeing old photos of the clock tower. Like the original faces, the new ones are made of glass, instead of plastic as they were before the renovation began.

The original clock operated with a winding mechanism but was converted to electricity in the 1950s, Watson said. Some of the original winding gears were removed during that process, and the motors caused excessive wear on the remaining gears.

Left alone, the clock would have soon stopped working, he said.

Restoring that timepiece would have cost between $50,000 and $80,000. Instead, the county bought the Pittsburgh clock, originally used in a school.

It will need to be wound once a week, making it one of only six wound tower clocks still in use across the state, Watson said.

"There are few left that are still wound," VanOrsdel said. "They've all been converted to electric, which is unfortunate It doesn't have the same character as the wound clock does. The historical value is gone. This is an heirloom. It's like having a 1902 Ford and putting a '78 Ford motor in it."

Watson said he'll often wind the clock, but added that others in county government are interested in learning how.

"My goal is to continue to cultivate an interest in the historical significance of it and have it properly maintained years from now," Watson said.

The changes to the clock tower are the result of a visit Watson made in November to find out why the clock wasn't chiming. While there, he discovered a 200-pound bronze bell in a corner.

The bell, stamped 1857, was most likely used until the courthouse was renovated in the 1920s. A new bell was added then and the older bell stashed away unused. The older bell has been refurbished and is displayed in the old courthouse's lobby.

While visiting the tower, Watson also discovered the disrepair of the clock and clock faces. He knew something had to be done.

"When anybody ever thinks about Union County and comes up with a visual image, nine times out of ten, it's going to be the old courthouse and the clock tower," Watson said.