He Even Finds Time To Repair Big Tower Clocks
Melissa Pionzio The Hartford Courant July 2009
HADDAM - As the restorer of timepieces both large and small, Martin Cooke is always on the lookout for a rare or interesting clock to add to his own eclectic collection. One piece, a cast iron Bradley Hubbard clock that sits sedately on his mantle, belonged to Cooke's grandfather. Others in his collection, including the four-sided McClintock post clock that towers over his driveway, were obtained from fellow collectors and repairmen who sell clock parts, pieces or whole units via the Internet.
For Cooke, the discovery of a rare or unusual clock is often a matter of luck and timing. In a way, the same can be said of how the former photojournalist-turned-clock-repairman expanded his businesses to include the large tower clocks that dot the New England landscape. "There is a company in Massachusetts, Electric Time Company, and they wanted someone to cover the New York City/New Jersey area to repair tower clocks," said Cooke, who was hired after a representative of Electric Time saw an advertisement for About Time Clock Restoration in the phone book. "There just aren't a lot of people who repair clocks in this area. I love the city, so I said sure." Although he'd recently been hired to install a new clock at the Portland Town Hall building, Cooke admits he didn't know much about tower clock repair. "But I have a lot of experience in different things," said Cooke, 46, who was once employed as a photographer for the Middletown Press before turning his sights to clock repair. "I worked with my father in the summer. ... He had a company in Hartford that installed sound systems." "That McClintock used to be at the Farmer's and Mechanics in Middletown and was removed in the 1950s... I can't imagine why," said Cooke, who owns and operates his About Time Clock Restoration business from his 19th century home in the Higganum section of Haddam. "I got it on eBay from a guy in Lebanon."
Cooke also possesses good carpentry skills, fine tuned after years of working on the older home he shares with his wife, Mary. Things started to take off, he said, and Cooke found himself immersed in a whole new world of clock repair. "Once you start doing jobs in New York City, word starts to spread," he said. "We do a lot of golf courses, because Rolex clocks are often found in golf courses to get people to buy Rolexes." Also, golf course clocks are often damaged by lightning strikes, which keeps Cooke plenty busy. And because his work is so specialized, new jobs keep coming his way. He recently repaired a clock at New York's Lincoln Center and at (Donald) Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. He also regularly maintains clocks, including Macy's and Rockefeller Center in New York City and for the city of Hartford. "There just aren't a lot of people that want to work on outdoor clocks," he said. "There are a lot of permits required, you have to hire cranes and it's physically demanding and often hot working outdoors." Tom Erb of Electric Time Company said Cooke is a great worker who excels at working on large mechanical, precision mechanisms. "He's very diligent and he is very accurate," said Erb, who has worked with Cooke for 12 years. "A tower clock requires somebody with a little sense of adventure, because you are going into these spaces that are somewhat dangerous. Martin is very willing to go out on these projects. If you are claustrophobic or have any sense of vertigo, you are sunk."
Though Cooke is usually able to complete a job in one day, his work takes him to many locations and requires a variety of tools and heavy equipment. Much of his time is spent in the car and on the road. "The traveling is getting old, but the part of this business that I do like is that you never know what is going to come up next," he said. "My work with Electric Time is mostly modern, but I also work on older clocks. A lot of the older churches and town halls have these older clocks and they need upkeep." For these jobs, Cooke often removes the clocks' innards and takes them back to his Higganum workshop for repair, new parts or cleaning. "As a result, we buy a lot of parts and make new parts," he said. "There is a nice exchange of information. We sell excess parts on eBay."
The online connections have created other opportunities for the Cookes, including a new friendship and invitation to visit to Japan. Cooke and his wife headed to Japan where he gave a presentation at the Fukuyama Auto & Clock Museum, where Nohsoh is the director. As a thank-you, his new friend presented Cooke with an unusual timepiece to add to his collection, a Japanese incense clock that may have been used in a Buddhist temple during the 1700s.
Turning Back Time in Franklin - 1895 Church Clock Gets A Tune-up
Mike Savino Willimantic Chronicle December 2008
Members of the Franklin Congregational Church are hoping to turn back time by fixing the clock in the church's steeple. The clock, installed in 1895, is an old-fashioned Seth Thomas No. 15 tower clock, a mechanical clock with an appearance reminiscent of one on top the courthouse in the famous "Back to the Future" movies. But the clock in Franklin was not the victim of a lightening strike that resulted in a 1.21 gigawatt power surge. Instead, Father Time simply took his toll on the old town landmark located at 31 Meetinghouse Hill Road. The church was finally able to restore the clock and the project could be done by the end of the month.
For approximately the last 10 years, the clock has been functioning, but was a little slow and it would be an hour behind by the end of the week. Anne Ayer, a member of the church, said a "very dedicated young man" would reset the clock every weekend so the bells would ring on time for Sunday services. The church began an effort roughly 10 years ago to save the clock tower and Ayer said it was finally able to raise the estimated $12,500 needed for the project. "It ws taking us so long, it took us from $10,000 to $12,500," Ayer said. Members of the church - especially, Eugene Ayer and John Ayer, Marjorie Robbins, the Rev. Carlos Avila and Enid Miller - raised much of the money, but they also received grants for help. Ayer said a $3,000 grant from the Last Green Valley, also know as the Quinebaug-Shetucket Heritage Corridor, helped the church reach its goal. She added members continued to work toward their goal because everyone "missed (the clock) greatly." "They keep asking me when it's going to be (restored)." Ayer said.
The church has hired About Time Clock Restoration out of Higganum (a section of Haddam) to help restore the clock so it would be able to function properly again. Martin Cooke, owner of About Time of Higganum, said he needs to replace the escapement, which is the spinning device inside a mechanical clock that helps it keep time, as well as some other pieces. He also said the restoration project should allow the clock to continue serving the church for a while. "The clock basically has enough meat on it to last another hundred years," he said. Cooke said he hopes to have the clock fixed by next week, but added "it's going to take some time to get it exactly where we want it." Ayer estimated only five clocks similar to the one at the church are still around but Cooke said that estimate may be on the high side. He said, while many clocks have a similar appearance on the face, most were converted in the 1950s and 1960s to harness electrical power. Electric clocks require less money and time for maintenance, but Cooke said they also lose some of the allure that old-fashioned mechanical models can offer. "They weren't thinking historically, they were thinking about not having someone climbing to wind it," Cooke said.
Timeless Timepieces: The Clocks of Trump National
Billy Keefe, Trump National Golf Club Newsletter January 2008
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, when American cities grew and emerged as centers of trade and commerce, a common theme also surfaced among them. This theme materialized in the form of prominent clock towers and street clocks. In an age when wrist watches did not exist, public square clocks not only served a useful purpose to the community, but also represented symbolic significance of wealth and prosperity. Clockmakers, typically from the Northeast, flourished in this era, coupling their artistic ability with newly established tools that enabled mass production. As the twentieth century turned, few cities were without prominent clock towers and few cities had streets without discernable street clocks.
It is not a stretch of truth to say Trump National Golf Club boasts two such "street clocks" in a fashion depicting both grandeur and functionality. The timepiece overlooking our course is an exact replica of a Seth Thomas work from the early 1800s. The Seth Thomas Clock Company was at the forefront of Edwardian and Victorian clock desgn during that time. Mr. Trump insisted on the exact placement of this classic "four dial" clock, and few can argue that the area chosen is not as timeless as the clock itself. One of Seth Thomas' most recognizable works is represented in the tower clock at Grand Central Station in New York.
Not to be outdone, our E. Howard clock in front of the building welcomes members and guests alike. Edward Howard, another leader in clock design and manufacturing during the late nineteeth century, also had roots in New England. Both the E Howard Clock Company and the Seth Thomas Clock Company are still in existence today.
How did the clocks arrive here and how were they assembled? Like the clocks of old, our treasures are products of old-school New England horology. Mr. Martin Cooke of Higganum, Connecticut and his wife, Mary own About Time, a small company specializing in clock assembly and preservation. As a horologist, Martin travels the eastern seaboard contracting for public and private clock owners.
Whereas cast iron has been replaced with cast aluminum and precision gearing has been enhanced by modern GPS, the clocks of Trump National are manufactured in the United States and remain exact replicas of timeless American craftmanship.
Restored Library Clock Tells Time After 25-Year Hiatus
Ken DiMaurao The Plainville Citizen December 2006
People driving by Plainville Public Library at 56 E. Main St. may not be late for their next appointment as officials hailed the recent renovation of the building's four-sided clock tower and its mechanism that literally had been frozen in time for the last quarter century.
Peter Chase, library director, said the board of library directors approved the repair to the clocks and its mechanism. The money for the restoration project is being financed by the library fund overseen by the trustees rather than tax dollars provided by the town. The money will come from endowments and private donations.
Workers from About Time Clock Restoration company in Higganum installed the new mechanism, power unit and bezels Dec 4 and 5. Martin T. Cooke, owner of the restoration firm, said the new mechanism is state-of-the-art and will adjust itself through a computer chip that receives the correct time from orbiting satellites. The time will adjust automatically for daylight saving time in the spring and the fall or if there is a power outage.
Cooke said he has been restoring clocks for more than a dozen years and has been concentrating on fixing steeple and tower clocks in the northeast. He said the restoration of the library clock tower was not particularly difficult and will last for many years. He said in addition to the mechanism, the faces of the clocks and their bezels or rims were replaced. "The bezels were rotted," Cooke said. The clock, which now has replicated faces, won't need any maintenance for the next 25 or 30 years, he said.
Chase said the original clock faces, which were donated in 1931 as part of the library by Plainville philanthropist Charles Norton, are being given to the Plainville Historical Society. For years, the tower was the only working outdoor clock in downtown Plainville. For some reason, it stopped working about 25 years ago, Chase said. Library officials had hoped to get the clock working again. "The clock tower restoration is one of the final projects of the library construction" that saw a new wing and addition built as well as the restoration of the original 1931 part of the building. Chase said, "It will add some tradition and charm to Plainville's downtown commercial section." Patrons attending the Dec. 13th library open house for the holidays got a chance to see the lighting of the newly restored tower. Chase said he is delighted the clock is working again.
It's About Time: East Hartford's 'Big Ben' tolls again
Kevin Wildes Journal Inquirer October 2000
Every five days for 50 years, George D. Bryan Jr. climbed 106 stairs to wind and maintain the clock in the tower at the First Congregational Church on Main Street. Townspeople timed themselves to the sound of the hourly bell. According to church sexton Dennis McCarthy, one man who lives across the street didn't even own a clock, relying instead on the town's own "Big Ben."
But Bryan, 72, died in May, and a month later, the ever-reliable clock stopped working. And so did some people's internal clocks - standing at a nearby bus stop, they would glance toward the tower, McCarthy says, unsure of whether the buses were running on time. Others approached the Rev. Linda Bagnal in the church's parking lot, asking whether the time frozen on the clock was accurate. No, she'd answer, prompting other questions about when the clock would be fixed. It wasn't an easy question to answer.
McCarthy knew how to wind and oil the 65-year-old clock, but getting it to run again was another story. "When the clock stopped, the first thing I did was pray because I had no idea what to do," McCarthy says. So McCarthy and church board members searched for someone qualified to fix the clock and had no luck. And after "pulling our hair out for weeks," McCarthy says, church officials decided they might have to arrange to have the clock run by electricity. The clock would run. The bell would ring. But the tradition of someone climbing up the steps to wind the clock would be lost forever.
That's when it became time for About Time, a one-man business that specializes in fixing clocks. The church board found About Time's owner, Martin Cooke, in the Higganum section of Haddam. Finding him wasn't easy, as Cooke is a rare breed: Working on clocks from New Jersey to Massachusetts, he describes his competition as "one guy in Maine and one guy in Pennsylvania."
Cooke found two main problems in the church's clock. For one, it had never been thoroughly cleaned, and oil buildup slowed the pivots. With that extra friction, the bushings - circular pieces that the pivots turn into - had worn into egg shapes. But after a meticulous cleaning and the addition of Cooke's handmade bushings, the bell started ringing over East Hartford again this September. Cooke estimates that the work he did on the clock should keep it running for another 60 years. "This clock won't need to be reworked until I'm long gone," Cooke says. Cooke's returns to the clock tower will be limited to fine-tuning. Most of the maintenance will fall on McCarthy's shoulders. "I'm a church sexton who takes care of the clock," McCarthy explains. "I don't think I'm qualified to be called a clock sexton." Nevertheless, it's fair to say that the clock runs on gravity and McCarthy's sweat. Every five days McCarthy treks up the winding staircase, which in some places is little more than a foot wide. Once at the top, he winds two 100-foot reels of cable. The first reel, which powers the pendulum, weighs about 200 pounds. The second, which rings the bell, weighs 800 pounds. "Let's just say that I don't need to join a gym," McCarthy says. "I get a step workout coming up here and a bench press winding the cables."