November 27, 2014

Antique clock comes home

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Civil War-era clock back in Williston after restoration

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

With remarkable ease, clock restorer Mert Esmond popped the 40-pound pendulum—made of wood and lead, but expertly painted to mimic marble—into the gothic grandfather clock, standing more than 8 feet high. Slowly, deliberately, the pendulum began to move back and forth, keeping track of the passing moments just as it did 150 years ago.

After two years of restoration in the hands of experts nationwide, the unique clock, created by Willistonian Russell D. Munson during the Civil War, has come home. It now stands in the Vermont room at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.

Esmond and fellow restorer Fred Ringer reassembled the clock on June 7, as Williston Historical Society members Terry Macaig and Ginger Isham looked on and passing tours of students oohed and aahed over the clock, commenting on its size and beauty.

“I think this is much more special than anything we have in our collection,” Isham said. “We have very few artifacts from the Civil War that were connected to a local person. And I don’t think we have anything as valuable.”

The historical society acquired the clock in 2010 from Williston resident George Munson, whose great-grandfather built it. The repairs cost approximately $7,000, added to the $15,000 purchase price the Historical Society is paying in installments.

“It’s a wonderful historical piece,” Macaig said. “It’s unlikely that any other town, at least in Vermont, would have this type of thing to display.”

June 7 marked the first time the clock has been reassembled since it was taken apart for repair and restoration in 2010—and the first time it has been on display.

Next week, Esmond is set to install the clock’s unique music box, which plays a different Civil War-era song each day of the week, including “Yankee Doodle” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Nancy Fratti of Canastota, N.Y.—a music box restoration expert—spent two months restoring the piece.

“It’s entirely different from anything else I’ve ever worked on,” said Fratti, who has specialized in repairing music boxes for 46 years. “It’s a combination of Swiss technology, American ingenuity and a very creative imagination… his imagination was fantastic.”

Esmond, who repaired the clock mechanisms, and Ringer, who carefully cleaned 150 years worth of grime and tobacco smoke from the walnut case, have also worked on the town clock in the Williston Federated Church steeple. Restorer Martha Smallwood of Dallas, Ga. was recruited to repaint the peeling clock face.

Ringer, a retired engineer whose clock restoration work is a labor of love, called the clock’s workmanship “top quality.”

“It’s a piece of local history. It survived all these years, in relatively good shape,” Ringer said. “There were some pretty special people with special talents that have passed through Williston over the years.”

The clock is dedicated to the unification of the United States after the Civil War. The phrase “Our Union Forever, U.S.A” is spelled out in bold wooden letters.

On a glass door over the pendulum, etchings show two women, each holding a flag. The women, emblazoned with the words “Justice” and “Freedom” represent the North and South—one with short sleeves and one with long, presumably to protect her from chilly Vermont winters.

Munson created the glass etchings with hydrofluoric acid—placing wax where he wanted the glass to remain intact and pouring acid over the rest to create the etchings.

Though Munson was a farmer by trade, he was a well-known tinkerer and inventor in his day. He created numerous other time pieces, as well as fiddles, pianos, music boxes, guns and farming equipment.

Also on display in the Vermont room is an antique music box built by Munson, which still plays music when cranked. George Munson’s cousin, Albert Haseloff, gave the melody box to the historical society shortly after it acquired the clock. The music box features intricately carved woodwork of farm tools and animals, as well as drops of silver said to be from melted-down dimes.

The clock was admired in its day, too. Munson even brought it on a tour, charging 25 cents admission and advertising it as a unique timepiece made by “an old Vermont Yankee Farmer.”

“Don’t smile, thinking that it is some rough jack-knife production, for man is not necessarily a num-skull because he tills the soil, but go and see it and you will be astonished as you never was before,” reads an undated advertisement.

The clock is displayed in the library’s Vermont room, which is open during regular library hours.

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