Time ticking for purchase of antique clock (10/22/09)

Oct. 22, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

When Williston farmer Russell D. Munson began a small side project 150 years ago, little did he know he would construct something to withstand the test of time.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
The etchings on the glass protecting the timepiece honor the reunification of the United States in post-Civil War America. Clock builder Russell D. Munson also incribed his name on the clock and the year in which it was completed.

A well-known tinkerer about town, Munson decided to put his skills to the test and build a grandfather clock. With his self-taught knowledge of mechanics and woodworking, Munson toiled on his clock for eight years, beginning in 1859.

Standing like a tall sentry guarding time, the 8-foot, 6-inch-tall clock remains noble in its advanced age. While the clock’s wood is worn in spots and its unique music box no longer plays its Civil War-era songs in tune, elaborate etchings on the pendulum’s glass doors still read as plain as day: “U.S.A. THE WORLDs CRADLE OF LIBERTY.”

“There’s nothing else like this,” said Ginger Isham, a member of the Williston Historical Society’s board of directors.

Today, the clock is owned by Russell Munson’s great-grandson, George Munson, and still resides in Williston.

The question is, for how long?

Munson’s legal guardian, Bob DiFerdinando, said the clock needs to be sold to help pay for Munson’s assisted living expenses. Though Munson originally wanted to donate the clock, he found it would not be practical considering his finances.

Munson hopes the clock will remain in town, but DiFerdinando said that might be impossible unless the Williston Historical Society buys the timepiece — soon — at its appraised value of $18,000.

“George wants it to stay in Williston and I’d love to see it stay in Williston,” DiFerdinando said. “We certainly don’t want to see it leave the state.”

Isham believes the Historical Society should purchase the clock as an historical treasure. But her wish has put her at odds with other members of the society, she said.

“We have the money to buy it and restore it and we should be doing it now,” Isham said.

Williston Historical Society board member Bob Bradish is “on the fence” about whether the group should purchase the clock. While he sees the clock as a unique historical piece, he wonders if the acquisition would be worthwhile.

“I just don’t know if the purchase of a clock is the right thing to do now,” Bradish said.

Munson and his clock

Russell Munson’s main occupation was farming, working the family land off North Brownell Road in the mid-1800s. But his passion was building and inventing. The more elaborate the design, the better. Munson crafted fiddles, pianos and music boxes, guns, locks and farming equipment. He built other timepieces, but the grandfather clock was his crowning achievement, one he proudly showed off at county fairs across Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.

Thematically, the clock is a tribute to the unification of the United States after the Civil War. The two escape wheels that vibrate the clock’s pendulum represent the North and the South, showing how both sides of the conflict could work together in a postwar United States. The etchings on the glass are statements to unification and a hope that the country would outlast its divisions.

The clock also has numerous creative quirks designed and built by Munson. The 40-pound pendulum has a separate timepiece built in its center. Inside the clock, a one-of-a-kind music box plays seven different Civil War-era songs — one for each day of the week.

With so many different features to the clock, it’s no wonder Munson traveled the Northeast, charging the curious to view his masterpiece, said Merton Esmond, an Essex Junction clock restorer.

“It’s a tremendous piece of work,” Esmond said.

At home in Williston?

Even with an appraised value of $18,000 and estimated restoration cost of nearly $7,000, Isham believes the clock is a bargain. She and Esmond said that after restoration, the clock could be worth $75,000.

DiFerdinando said time is running out for a purchase, and the clock will need to be sold elsewhere if the Historical Society doesn’t act quickly. According to Isham, a buyer in Richmond is interested, and Vermont Civil War author Howard Coffin has also expressed a desire to own the piece.

But Historical Society President Terry Macaig said some group members want more information, and the group is seeking someone to make a second appraisal.

“If we buy, then what do we do with it?” Macaig said.

Bradish said the society would want as many people as possible to view the timepiece. Storing the grandfather clock in the Historical Society’s Vermont Room at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library is an option, but Bradish doesn’t believe enough people would get a chance to see it there. He feels money could be better spent elsewhere, on community and historical education events.

Yet Isham believes the clock would attract more people to the Vermont Room and, as a result, garner interest in the Historical Society.

“George and (DiFerdinando) are bending over backwards to help us get this,” Isham said. “We need to do this. It’s an absolutely priceless piece of work.”e of work.”