Towering above Elmira, the clock on the former municipal building downtown has been marking time with the ring of its bell for more than a century.
The manpower that’s involved in keeping that bell ringing dates back as long as the tower itself. But as many clocks moved to digital, thus eliminating the job of an analogue timekeeper, a volunteer force took up the mantle to ensure the Elmira clock tower keeps its history.
“My uncle Joe did this forever, for 30-some years,” said Patrick Kelly, a volunteer with the Society of Clock Winders. “It’s been handed down through generations, through my uncle’s family down to me. We set up this group to do it because it gets busy.”
The Society of Clock Winders is a tongue-in-cheek secret organization of five friends who look after the winding and maintenance of the clock and its mechanism atop what is today the Clock Tower Wellness Centre.
Every week the volunteers climb up the ladders leading into the clock steeple to wind up the weights that keep the hands turning. Along with Kelly, Jeff Hutchison, Brad Lebold, Dylon Smith and Scott McMillan all work at ensuring the clock keeps time.
Once entering the clock steeple you are greeted by a standing iron box containing a mass of gears, oil, poles and a small clock face. The mechanism is the brain of the operation, allowing the volunteers to change the time and wind up the weights that keep it running.
“This mechanism, one side controls the bell, and the other side controls the timepiece upstairs,” said Kelly. “When you turn the clock ahead or back, it turns all four of the faces of the clock at the exact same time so they’re all in unison. It’s a seven-day clock, so every week we come down and wind both the bell wire and the minute piece.”
Moving up the next ladder brings you into the bell room. The buzz of the street below can be heard through the fenced off windows that allow the bell’s chime to ring out over the town. The massive bell hangs alongside a mallet connected to the clock mechanism below.
“On the hour, that mechanism falls out of place just enough that it trips this wire, and when it trips the wire it pulls the mallet back and …,” said Kelly as his laugh was drowned out by the ringing of the bell. “Now somebody downtown thinks it’s half past.”
“The thickness of the bell is pretty phenomenal,” said Lebold. “It’s impressive.”
The most impressive spectacle can be found at the top floor of the tower: the four clock faces. Light streams in from every wall through the large window-like clock faces each with their own metal pole that meets in the center, cutting the room into four. It is all connected to the clock gearbox two floors down.
“The mechanism down there drives all the gears, and the weights that we wound up sit here and, over the course of the week, will drop down the tower as the clock unwinds them,” explained Hutchison. “So it’s basically just gravity powered, and we crank them up every week.”
For the volunteers what keeps them coming back is the preservation of history, their actions help keep the clock timekeeping and bell chime from turning digital.
“Kind of a really neat thing for us to be a part of,” said Hutchison. “We’re fortunate to be part of looking after this neat piece of history and the community.”
The group plans to keep their society alive, passing it down to their kids. The group hopes that the clock’s bell will keep its character and not be reduced to a recorded chime.
“It has such a nice sound compared to clock towers that have been turned over and digitized,” said Hutchison.
“You always noticed the bell ring,” said Kelly. “But you didn’t notice it to the same extent now. When you hear it ringing, it just means something different.”