Driving through downtown Stanford one September day in 1999, David Neal noticed what countless people before him had observed—the grand old tower clock on the courthouse wasn’t working. Unlike those before him, however, Neal decided to do something about it. The Lincoln County resident had never repaired anything like the 1877 clock, but he had a natural mechanical ability and memories from his childhood that made him believe he could get the old clock working once again.
“When I was 10 years old, my dad was the jailer for Lincoln County,” Neal, now 46, recalls. “Our home was in the courthouse, and the city judge at the time, George Davidson, was a clock man. He would service the courthouse clock. George took a liking to me and asked me if I would like to go up in the clock tower with him. That was my first glimpse of an E. Howard Tower Clock Model 1 S. I went up there several times with him and found it fascinating.”
In fact, Neal was intrigued enough to climb to the belfry by himself one day.
“After the judge showed me the clock, I decided to take it upon myself to fiddle around up there one day,” he recalls. “I was climbing the ladder at exactly three o’clock. I was right beside the clock bell when it struck. I was hanging on, trembling.”
Back in Stanford, Neal found R.W. “Buckwheat” Gilbert, the county judge executive for Lincoln County.
“I asked him if he had anybody doing maintenance on the clock,” Neal recalls. “He said no; do you know someone who could fix it? I told him I would like to give it a try.”
With that, Neal, a carpenter by trade and father of two, launched a second business for himself and offered new hope to the old clocks still proudly hanging in towers in many of Kentucky’s oldest communities.
“I am pretty mechanical,” Neal says. “It comes naturally. I looked at the old clock in Lincoln County and knew what was wrong. Besides being extremely dirty, there were a few pieces that were broken. I started by disassembling it.”
Neal had gears, axles, and other parts spread out everywhere when Robin Kruer, his assistant and fiancée, came up to see what he was doing.
“Robin saw all those pieces and just said, ‘Oh, no. What are you going to do? How are you ever going to get it back together?’ All that was left intact was the frame. It looked like a mess, but I repaired the broken pieces and put it back together.”
Getting the clock going again, however, had disassembled Neal’s plans for that fall. He had completed an associate’s degree in science at Somerset Community College and was planning to return to the University of Kentucky in the fall. Instead, he dropped that semester and has been mixing a few classes with clock repairs ever since.
There are clocks throughout Kentucky that need his attention. In Garrard County, the clock’s mercury switch was broken. To repair it, Neal had to fabricate a linkage because old parts are nearly impossible to find for the clocks that aren’t manufactured any more.
“I took the mercury switch out of a wall thermostat,” recalls Neal. “It was a real low amperage, so I ran it through a couple of relays to step it up to the right amperage and give it the power supply needed for the striker motion. They couldn’t find anyone to repair it except a couple of big companies in the North, but they are more interested in selling new clocks than repairing the old ones. They are also real expensive.”
A clock in Grant County hadn’t worked for 40 years. Neal spent about 100 hours oiling and cleaning old parts and machining new ones. It was chiming every hour on the hour by Christmas of 1999, just as the community leaders had hoped.
Many of the clocks Neal has repaired were mostly in need of a good cleaning or lubrication. “These old timepieces are precision machines and should be kept clean and not be allowed to become grungy,” says Neal. Some needed new parts, others needed gears or linkages repaired. The Turnersville resident has now worked on clocks in Warren, Russell, Pulaski, Anderson, Simpson, Lincoln, Boyle, Garrard, Madison, Jessamine, Fayette, Franklin, Grant, Harrison, Bath, Powell, Wolfe, McCracken, Scott, and Ballard counties in Kentucky as well as a clock in Scott County, Tennessee. Several clocks are waiting for Neal to repair them.
Regardless of where they are located, Neal’s absolute love for the big, old timepieces comes across every time he discusses one of the clocks.
“I love the size and durability of them,” says Neal, who notes that the clocks can range anywhere from 250 to 300 pounds (the clock in Grant County) to some 2,000 pounds (clocks in Nicholasville and Stanford). Some of the newer clocks burn out in 10 years, some of them in three. “These old things take a pounding and keep going. They are made to last. They are designed to last at least 200 years.”
Most were made by one of two manufacturers—E. Howard or Seth Thomas.
The E. Howard clocks are typically larger, and all the clocks are made from a combination of cast iron, cast brass, and cast bronze. The majority were manufactured in the mid- to late-1800s and very early 1900s. Most of these pendulum movements have been motorized. One clock in Fulton County, however, is still hand-wound.
When he saw a clock motor for the first time, Neal says he was surprised.
“One of the first things that fascinated me about the clocks was the size of the motor,” he says. “I was expecting something huge. However, the time motor was barely larger than a sewing machine motor.”
Appropriately enough, Neal proposed to his future wife on a clock platform, more specifically on the clock platform in Lincoln County where he had repaired his first clock.
“She was working on a platform, and I snuck around behind her and did the knee thing,” he says. “She was shocked and giggled like a school girl, but she said yes.” The couple, together for close to three years now, are planning to marry soon.
Meanwhile, Neal says he “sure likes looking at the old clocks after they are cleaned up.”
“Repairing them is a unique job,” he admits. “Not everyone can do it, and it is dangerous. The ladders are old and rickety. Most of them are way off the ground, usually 100 feet high or so.”
But Neal says it is a “great job.”
“You get up there 100 feet and you have a great view while you work. When you’re finished, you have a great clock to look at. I’d like to get all the old clocks in Kentucky cleaned up and working.”