Time takes toll on church clock

Leaky steeple threatens mechanical marvel

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The stairs creak as Bill White ascends the clock tower at Williston Federated Church. A nostalgic old-attic scent pervades the interior. The wind whistles outside.

On the first landing, White, who maintains the clock, points to a long chute containing the cables and weights that drive the movement and ring the bell. A pyramid-shaped wooden enclosure houses the pendulum.

Up another set of stairs is the clock movement, a century-old work of industrial art. The shiny gold gears are encased in a green cast-iron housing. Its rhythmic ticking is both surprisingly loud and strangely soothing – an amplified pocket watch.

The uppermost level contains the 2,000-pound bell, which is suspended beneath the church’s spire. White strikes it with a hammer, producing a loud but not quite ear-splitting bong.

The church’s four-faced clock tower and bell have marked the passage of time in Williston for more than a 100 years. They are considered municipal and church treasures, and so have been maintained at considerable expense over the years.

“The town is distinguished by its steeple and clock,” White says. “Whether you are Catholic, Jewish or Protestant, this is a landmark. It’s the town’s alarm clock.”

The church owns and maintains the building, but the town of Williston owns the clock. The structure and its mechanical components were restored less than a decade ago. But now a new problem has emerged.

White discovered a leak during a driving rainstorm last month. Apparently originating in the steeple, it poses at least a small threat to the lovingly restored timepiece. The clock’s mechanism is flecked with bits of surface rust.

“I don’t know how to describe the problem other than to call it very serious,” White wrote in a memo to trustees at Williston Federated Church. But White emphasizes in an interview that the church is doing its best to keep up a high-maintenance structure.

Brian Goodwin, chairman of the church’s trustees, says the clock is not the only worry because leaking water can flow down walls and affect other parts of the building. Trustees talked about repainting and repairing the steeple even before the recent leak, he said, but instead decided to fix windows in the church.

“Unfortunately, the church, like any homeowner, has to pick and choose what projects to do,” Goodwin says. “In hindsight, I wish we had done the (steeple) work this year.”

The leak comes less than a decade after a major renovation to the structure. Hundreds of individual donations helped fund the $140,000 project, which included repainting the steeple and bell tower, replacing rotting beams inside the tower and restoring the clock.

The structure was removed with a crane and placed on the ground next to the church for the repairs, which were completed in 1998.

“It gets a lot of weather,” Goodwin explains. “It’s up there in the wind, rain and snow. It takes a beating.”

The tip of the steeple is more than 100 feet high. White figures temperatures up there exceed 100 degrees in the summer and plummet to 40 below zero in the winter. Not to mention the wind, which was apparent on a walk to the top of the tower on a recent morning, despite just a light breeze on the ground.

The innards of the tower are a marvel of mechanical engineering. One must climb 64 steps and wriggle under thick beams to see it all.

A relatively new bicycle sits on the first landing. It seems a strangely modern touch, but it’s really a concession to human frailty.

White installed the bike to save his back from the strain of winding the mechanism. The bike pulls a 1,500-pound weight attached to a cable-and-pulley rig, which drives the mechanism that rings the bell each hour. A similar rigging with a lighter weight drives the clock movement, which is wound with a crank and regulated by a pendulum.

The mechanism as a whole is akin to an oversize cuckoo clock, with the bell taking the place of the cuckoo.

The clock movement was manufactured by the E. Howard Clock Co. of Boston. White faithfully winds the clock, keeping it accurate to within 20 seconds a week.

White took on the job of the town’s clock winder – he calls the position clock custodian – in 1997. Before that, Howard Carpenter and his family shared the task for about three decades. Both men have an engineering background: White as a retired computer engineer at IBM and Carpenter as a former professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont.

Carpenter still feels an attachment to the clock after all these years. “If I hear the bell, I want to know how fast or slow the clock is running,” he says.

There was apparently one major mishap involving the mechanism a long time ago. Timbers in the chute that guides the weights are charred. White theorizes that lightning struck a cable, severing it and sending the weight crashing through the church’s floors and into the basement.

White discovered the leak on Oct. 26 when he was installing a new drain to cure another problem, this one involving rain blowing in through the tower’s louvers. As he finished the job during a wind-blown storm that day, he noticed water dripping through the ceiling of the clock room. The water was coming from the steeple and splashing on the clock movement.

Williston Federated Church was formed in 1899 when the Methodist and Congregationalist denominations joined to boost declining membership that threatened to close both churches. The building itself, which was originally the Methodist church, was completed in 1869. The clock was installed in 1900.

Goodwin says church trustees will talk about the leaking steeple at their December meeting. He thinks the repairs will include repainting the bell tower and plugging the leak.

“It’s a beautiful structure,” Goodwin says. “We want to do everything we can to make it look good.”

During his tour of the structure, White shows the logbook where he records maintenance of the clock. It is located near the shiny clock movement in a cozy space with walls lined with pine planks.

There is a feeling of peaceful solitude in this room, amid the ticking timepiece and the whistling wind high above Williston Village.

“Sometimes I feel like … ,” White trails off, trying to recall the historic reference, “like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”