MONMOUTH, Ill. — Thanks to the cellphone and global positioning satellites, we now take for granted that most everyone is operating on synchronized time and can know at a glance exactly what time it is. But that was not always the case.
Until they became a necessity for soldiers in the trench and aviators during World War I, wristwatches were a novelty, worn only by an elite few. Prior to that, some men carried pocket watches, but women generally did not. Moreover, time was not standardized and usually varied from town to town. That’s why it’s not surprising that when Warren County began building its fine new courthouse in 1894, a major discussion centered around whether or not it would have a clock in its tower that would strike on the hour and allow citizens and shoppers from the country to know the official Monmouth time.
A business depression had hit the city hard, causing the building committee of the board of supervisors to approach the Business Men’s Association, proposing that it solicit contributions to pay for half of the clock. Indignant, the association replied in a letter that businesses had already been hit hard enough and that to ask them to seek donations from customers (who were already paying a 7 percent tax) was unreasonable.
The letter added that “While this clock would be an ornament to the building and without it the building will have an unfinished appearance and would be the butt of gibe and jests from strangers visiting our city, and while it would be a convenience to those living and doing business about the business part of the city, yet we suggest that it would be an equal benefit to citizens from all parts of the country, and all of whom are keeping an eye to the time of their train and the time when they should depart for their homes.”
Apparently, the county board was swayed by the argument and voted in December 1894 to expend $1,000 (about $30,000 today) on a Seth Thomas clock with four lighted dials. By January 4, 1895, the clock had arrived, and by early February it had been installed, except for the north dial, which had been damaged in shipment. A representative of the Seth Thomas Clock Company superintended the installation and remained in Monmouth to regulate the clock’s movement.
The new clock did indeed become a point of pride for Monmouth, and years later, the weight-driven clockworks were replaced with a more reliable electric motor. By the 1960s, however, the clock had ceased to function, and the wristwatch-wearing public rarely looked skyward to notice.
In 1969, the board of supervisors became alarmed when a windstorm loosened chunks of the building’s Portage red sandstone, which fell and damaged the clay tile roof. Building inspectors determined that more stones in the tower were loose and could pose a public hazard. The best option, in an era before widespread interest in historic preservation, was to remove the offending tower and its non-working clock.
Bids were put out and Kistler & Co. won the tower-removal contract. Work began in August 1970, and an unused stairway was enclosed to serve as a chute for dropping stone and debris to street level. The first step was to pour a cement slab midway up the tower, below clock level. It was determined that the original wooden floor in the tower was unsafe, so scaffolding was installed inside the tower before proceeding with demolition and the construction of a flat roof with sloping sides between the parapets.
Of course, the clockworks and the faces had to come down as well. The late Bill Smallwood, who operated Norris Office Equipment, was one of the people who was given an opportunity to salvage the 75-year-old timepiece. His son, John, recalls assisting in the arduous adventure:
“As to the actual removal, we had a fair amount of manpower, but it was hard to utilize at times. The final story up to the clock had a very narrow and steep stairway that was closer to a ladder. This was the most challenging part. We had a very heavy hemp rope that we used at the office machine business to pull safes and fire files upstairs with, and this was employed to help lower it from above on edge with me and someone else on the stairs to guide it.
“The glass faces were extremely heavy. The main stairs were easy as we could get several men on them at once. I should mention that one of the hazards was slipping on pigeon guano. Someone had done recon before we showed up and advised us all to wear boots.”
Smallwood said that one of the glass faces was made into a patio table at their house, but that it was eventually shattered by vandals. Another face, which was a ¾-inch plexiglass replacement for one of the original faces, was made into a ceiling light in Smallwood’s home office. It was backlit with four fluorescent tubes and John adapted a gear-reduced synchronous motor that turned the hands one revolution per hour.
The surviving clock parts have since been donated to the Warren County History Museum.
On August 3, 1970, the Kistler workmen lowered the 500-pound bell that formerly struck the hours from the tower. It is now displayed just inside the courthouse’s east door.
Earlier renovations to the courthouse had included the 1964 installation of an elevator in the west stairway, as well as the remodeling of the grand jury room and assessor’s office into an office for the circuit clerk. The courtroom was also made smaller to provide space for a petit jury room and offices for the circuit and associate judges. The existing circuit clerk’s office was remodeled to serve as a magistrate courtroom which doubled as a grand jury room. A room used as the associate judge’s office became the new office of the tax assessor.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illlinois history for more than 35 years.