Time does not fly in the corner of the McLennan County radio shop at 623 Washington Ave. It snoozes in crates.
In the dark of the boxes lie two restored historical clocks that once served city and county towers, reminding downtown denizens of dentist appointments and train arrivals. The county clock and attached bell was installed in the old courthouse in 1884 and was later moved to the tower of the McLennan County Jail behind the new courthouse.
The smaller city clock was built in 1904 and was perched in the belfry of the old City Hall until a new building replaced it in 1929.
Both timepieces were in storage limbo until the 1990s, when local clock enthusiasts and county employees took on the monumental task of restoring them.
But 20 years later, these masterpieces of timekeeping are still effectively homeless.
County Judge Scott Felton wants to change that. He’s looking for community partnerships to get them back on display, perhaps in a new, functional bell tower downtown.
“I’ve thought for a long time that these clocks belong to the community,” Felton said. “To have them crated up in a box in the back of a warehouse — first, they’re taking up space, and second, they’re not being utilized. Because of the historical significance of those items, they should be used, with so much development going on.”
At the same time, Felton is seeking a permanent place in the community to display the original Themis statue that has been replaced by a duplicate atop the county courthouse. He said the clock and statue do not have to go to the same place, but he would like to see both under the care of a responsible institution.
“They need to be part of something substantial, whether it’s with the city, one of our colleges or a museum,” he said. “(The clocks) should be where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic. … I’d like some feedback if anyone has a legitimate idea.”
In the early 2000s, then county commissioner Joe Mashek and local historic preservationists pushed to build a 60-foot tower for the county clock in the parking lot of the county records building. The original vision for a $400,000 tower was scaled back to $250,000, and the Cooper Foundation and Tax Increment Financing board offered to fund $100,000 of it. But some commissioners balked at spending any county money on the project, and it died.
The clocks are currently in the custody of Wayne Canaday, director of maintenance and equipment for the county. Canaday helped restore the clocks with the Waco chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, and with that chapter disbanded, he remains the clocks’ biggest advocate.
He would like to see the city clock displayed somewhere and the county clock set up downtown in a tower along with the 3,500-pound bell it was created to strike.
“It’s just the history of Waco,” he said. “For the people who crafted and worked on that clock to make it, and also those who came in to do work to restore it, it would be a testimony to them.”
The clocks are remarkably complete given their total neglect for decades.
The city clock, made by Seth Thomas and installed by Waco watchmaker Fred Studer in 1904, was decommissioned when the ornate 1886 City Hall was razed in 1929 to make way for the current building. It was put in storage at City Hall and forgotten until a city employee discovered it in 1995.
A couple of years later, the larger county clock was discovered at a county maintenance barn at 20th Street and Mary Avenue.
That weight-driven clock was manufactured by E. Howard of Boston and installed in the old courthouse in 1884.
In 1903, the county built a new jail next to the new courthouse, according to “Wanted: Historic County Jails of Texas,” by Edward A. Blackburn Jr. The clock and bell were moved to the tower of the jail, which was razed around 1952.
The clock was fitted with an electric motor in the 1930s, then disassembled and put into storage in the 1950s, Canaday said.
By the time the clock was rediscovered, the four wooden clock faces were missing. Canaday said he has heard jail trusties were ordered to chop them up with axes years before. The clock itself had been inundated several times when the adjacent Waco Creek flooded. But the brass gears were still in decent shape, and the iron parts could be sanded down and restored, he said.
A front-end loader operator discovered the heavy iron base for the clock when he was scraping the parking lot. And in 1999, an employee clearing away a collapsed mule barn at the site found that one of its beams was resting on the massive nickel-bronze bell.
The clock club set up shop at the county-owned Shriner building near Canaday’s shop on Washington Avenue, and after work each day he would head over to help, sometimes staying there until 10 p.m. on his own time.
The volunteers logged 2,500 hours in restoring the clocks, using steel wool to remove grime and rust, even adding a filigree of 24-karat gold leaf.
“At first we used gold paint, but after we put the gold leaf on it, when the sun hit it, gosh, you could tell,” Canaday said.
Canaday took a bent brass gear to a local machine shop to get it straightened out, but the proprietor was wary.
“He said, ‘If I break this, I won’t be able to reproduce it. The way these angles are cut, for me to reproduce it is going to cost a lot of money.’
“He said a lot of this was done by hand,” Canaday said. “He put a little pressure on it and bent it back. I was so afraid it was going to break.”
Ringing the bell
Canaday said the bell, made at a Cincinnati foundry, is also practically irreplaceable.
“We took a forklift and lifted that bell a little off the ground,” Canaday said. “I hit it just barely, and that bell just resonated, bong! It just carried a perfect tone. Then I tapped on it a little harder and it really rang out.”
He chuckled at the thought of inmates at the old jail jumping every time it rang a story above them.
Canaday said he tested the restored clock with the old electric motor, and it kept perfect time. He said the old clock machinery sat at the top of the jail tower, but it could be placed at ground level for public viewing and attached to a clock face using a long spindle.
Canaday, 65, said he would be willing to service the clock even after he retires.
The city donated its clock to the county, but Waco Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III said he is willing to be part of the discussion in finding the clocks a new home. Stem, who will become city manager in March, said he would try to schedule a time to go look at the clocks.
“I like the idea in general,” he said of Felton’s suggestion of displaying the clocks. “It is part of our history. It’s something we’d have to visit with the council about. It does sound worthwhile and intriguing.”