Bell tones

Clock destroyed, bell saved
in Jefferson County Courthouse fire

Parts of clock will go on display
at historical society museum

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(July 2009) – On March 18, 1859, the city of Madison hired local watchmaker Israel Fowler to build a clock for the Jefferson County Courthouse for a price of $600. He was to build four faces and to furnish two years of service as part of the agreement.
For the next century and a half, that clock became the timekeeper for generations of Madisonians. Periodically, it stopped ticking due to repair issues, but it always managed to get fixed and again resume its duties.

Courthouse Bell

Photo by Darrel Taylor

The 3,100-pound bell is lowered
from the top of the fire-damaged
Jefferson County Courthouse on
May 29, more than a week after
the fire. Most people had never seen
the bell, which was made in 1864
and later installed in the belltower.

Once it stopped for more than two weeks when Fowlers’ son, William, died without instructing anyone in the proper way to wind and care for the clock. Fortunately, a Vevay, Ind., clock expert knew how to do it, perhaps because Fowler had also made the clock for the Switzerland County, Ind., Courthouse.
On the night of May 20, the clock was completely destroyed in a major fire at the courthouse. All night long and much of the next day, firefighters battled huge flames and smoldering ruins.
Jefferson County Historical Society Executive Director Joe Carr and Historic Madison Inc. Executive Director John Staicer were among the hundreds of people on the scene of the fire. When it was safe to do so, the historians crawled through the ruble and managed to salvage two faces of the historic icon.
We found the faces in the junk pile,” said Carr.
One of the faces is being stored at the Historical Society and will be on display in an exhibit about the courthouse.
Carr said the inner works of the clock, the original pieces made by Fowler, were actually dismantled and stored in the courthouse basement in the 1990s. He believed they should still be down there.

Joe Carr

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Joe Carr, executive director of
the Jefferson County Historical
Society, poses with a clock face
that was salvaged intact from
the Courthouse fire. He plans to put it
on permanent display at the museum.

“I don’t know what plans the county has for the clock, but we’d certainly like to see the clockworks saved,” he said. “We would be glad to take them if the courthouse doesn’t intend to restore them.”
Originally, the clock was operated by weights. One section had a weight of approximately 400 pounds. It was used to operate the strokes on the huge bell attached to it. The other weight, approximately 100 pounds, was used to operate the time. As it was wound, a large crank was applied and the weights were drawn up into the belfry.
In the 1960s, the original clockworks were replaced with electric units.
In 1864, the current bell that accompanied the clock was cast by the Buckeye Foundry of Cincinnati and “toned to the Letter E,” according to what is actually written on it. Although research is conflicting, it appears as though in 1859, William Stanley and Thomas McGuire were contracted to supply the city with a bell. No one was sure why it took so long to cast and hang the bell, but it may have had something to do with the American Civil War, which took place at that time.
According to documents on file at the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library, the new bell had to be “equally as good as the original bell, and to not weight less than 1,600 pounds of bell metal of the best quality, independent and exclusive of other yoke, hammer and other cast and wrought iron fixtures for a price of 35 cents a pound.”

Courthouse Bell

Top photo by Don Ward; above, lower photo by Darrel Taylor

The Courthouse bell was made at a
Cincinnati foundry and is now in
storage. Officials are considering
placing the bell on display in the
Courthouse lawn if it is not
returned to the future belltower,
which must be built during the
restoration. The bell has the
foundry name of “G.W. Coffin & Co.”
on it. The company was the George
Washington Coffin & Co., also
known as the Buckeye Bell Foundry.

Courthouse Bell

The document also states the old bell metal and fixtures could be used to make the new bell. The old bell had been made by the West Troy Bell Foundry of Troy, N.Y., and purchased for $742.29 on Nov. 9, 1855. It had apparently been damaged when it fell through the roof and “nearly landed on the firefighters,” during a February 1859 fire.
Today, the bell sits quietly in a storehouse, waiting to be cleaned and re-hung. Staicer said the bell appeared to be free of cracks when he first saw it after the fire, but it was darkened from smoke and soot. He said his organization is ready to provide Jefferson County Commissioners with information about special metal conservators when the time comes to get the bell cleaned.

Back to July 2009 Articles.



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