My father-in-law is a lover of local history. Not long ago, he was paging through old issues of the Wellington Enterprise, and came across a notice he thought would interest me:
“Museum Recipient of Clock From Home of Alonson Howks. Three guests Friday at Wellington’s museum were Mr. and Mrs. Orville Knapp of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Grace Prosser Kesser of 138 Union st, bearing family heirlooms that will be highly prized by the Historical Society. The Knapps presented a clock that arrived in Wellington more than 150 years ago with Mr. and Mrs. Alonson Howk, one of the first families to settle here. They owned a mile square tract–the entire Southeast section of the town, running south to Jones-rd; east to Hawley; north to Route 18 and west to the center of town. The Howks donated the land that became the village commons (public square) and the park adjoining on the south with the provision that it always be used for these purposes. HISTORIAN EDWARD WELLS reports that Mr. Howk died in 1860. The Howk ‘farm’ home then was the residence at 308 East Herrick-av, which in recent years became the property of Mrs. Belden Cowles who sold it to the present owners, the Steven Kirbys. It definitely is among Wellington’s oldest residences. The Howks’ daughter, Electa, became the wife of Horace Mead and to this union six children were born: Fannie Clodwick, Frank Mead, Mrs. George (Theodosia) Whitehead, Sadie McQuiston, Nellie Bassett and Katie Prosser. Orville Knapp married Minerva, daughter of the George Whiteheads, and it was she who inherited the clock that now rests in the museum. OF ADDED INTEREST is the fact that the clock was taken to Florida in 1920 by the Knapps when they established a winter home there. The highways ran from poor to terrible and the trip took two weeks. By contrast, when Orville and the second Mrs. Knapp came by plane last month, carefully bearing the clock, the trip was made to Cleveland in two hours and fifteen minutes” (9/9/1971, pg. 3).
Regular readers of the blog will know that I have done a great deal of research into the Howk family that emigrated in 1818 from Lee, Massachusetts to the area we now call Wellington. You may have seen the lecture I presented to kick off the village’s 2018 bicentennial celebrations. So reading this small notice was quite exciting, as I was not previously aware of any such clock. A few small discrepancies caught my eye, however. Alanson Howk was a teenager when he traveled to Ohio with his immediate family. He did not marry Theadocia Clifford until 1828, a full decade after he emigrated. Alanson died in 1850, rather than 1860. Small points to be sure, but they made me approach the rest of the information with a bit more caution.
I contacted the Spirit of ’76 Museum and asked if they were aware of any such clock? Yes, they certainly were. It is currently on display on the mezzanine level, in a small exhibit of materials relating to the Howk family. I asked if it would be possible for me to visit and see the timepiece in person, and they very graciously agreed.
I found the clock straight away. And what a marvelous object it is! The front section is made of iron cast in an ornate, curvilinear mold. It retains a strong reddish tone in places, suggesting it was painted entirely red when first made. There is a hand-painted landscape depicting buildings with red (presumably tile) roofs, next to a body of water and trees. The scene is enhanced by a few pieces of applied mother-of-pearl. The iron front is screwed to a very simple rectangular wooden case. I know virtually nothing about clocks, but I do know something about the decorative arts of early America. What struck me immediately about this object, as interesting as it is, is that it did not look like a New England clock of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century ought to look. My initial guess, based purely on examining the exterior, was a date of manufacture in the 1850s or later. I decided to seek outside counsel.
I reached out to Mr. Tim Simonson, Wellington’s resident horologist. Mr. Simonson has a beautiful clock repair shop in an outbuilding on his South Main Street property. I explained my initial impressions and asked his opinion. He mentioned that he had been called in to restore the clock to working order when it was donated to the museum in 1971. Its surface was blackened with soot, after years of sitting on a mantel over wood or coal fires, and it was his cleaning that revealed the painted scene. He also believed it to be of a later time period than 1818. I asked if he would be willing to revisit the clock, with the museum’s permission, and allow me to observe. He generously agreed.
Prior to our appointment, I began conducting research to see if I could learn more about cast-iron clocks of that construction. I was able to find a dozen examples, none definitively dated, but all estimated to have been made in 1850 or later. More interestingly, I found two examples of cast-iron front clocks said to have been purchased from the American Clock Company of New York that had painted scenes identical to the clock in Wellington’s museum, namely red-roofed buildings next to a body of water surrounded by trees, topped with applied pieces of mother-of-pearl. One of these examples was estimated to have been made in 1855, the other in 1870. (I subsequently learned that the American Clock Company began operation in 1864, so if that attribution is correct, both clocks must date after that time.)
I joined Mr. Simonson at the museum with a working hypothesis that the clock we were to examine dated to the second half of the nineteenth century and–based on its painted decoration–had possibly been purchased from the American Clock Company of New York. Mr. Simonson carefully disassembled the piece, unscrewing the cast-iron front from the wooden case. The movement is made of brass, which by itself dates the object post-1840, the period in which the transition from wooden movements to metal ones occurred. A close examination of the clock face revealed a small notation impressed into the top of the brass bezel, “Pat[ented] May 10, 1859.” But the clearest evidence of the clock’s origins was the paper label pasted inside the case.
William L. Gilbert & Co. was a clock manufacturer based in Winchester, Connecticut. The southernmost New England state was a nationally renowned center of fine clock construction, and many pieces were sold via New York City markets. The American Clock Company of New York, said to have sold the two painted examples I featured above, acquired their inventory from factories in Connecticut. In fact, Mr. Simonson indicated that decorative work was sometimes hired out to local artisans, which could account for the same painted scene appearing on clocks sold by multiple companies.
Gilbert first moved his business to Winchester in the autumn of 1841. The company operated under several names and with various partners, but was not called Wm. L. Gilbert & Co. until 1851. It was then renamed in 1866. So the clock donated by the descendants of the Howk family was apparently created sometime between 1859 (the patent date on the bezel) and 1866 (the year the factory became the Gilbert Manufacturing Company).
Without further documentation, it is not possible to know precisely when and how the clock came into the Howk family’s possession. The Enterprise notice claimed it was inherited by Alanson and Theadocia Howk’s great-granddaughter, Minerva Whitehead Knapp. I could find no listing for Minerva in the published family genealogy, Howk in America, 1600s-1982, but I did find her mother, Theadocia Mead Whitehead (1867-1940). We now know that Theadocia Mead was born after this clock was likely made, so perhaps Minerva inherited the object from her maternal grandmother, Electa Howk Mead (1838-1913). Electa was Alanson and Theadocia’s daughter, born in Wellington two decades after her father’s 1818 emigration from Massachusetts. It is perfectly understandable that later generations might have become confused about the clock’s provenance.
Though it did not travel from Massachusetts to Ohio in 1818, this clock is still a lovely object that is at least one hundred and fifty years old. And it could have belonged to the Howk family for over a century prior to their donation in 1971. The next time you visit the Spirit of ’76 Museum, be sure to stop in the mezzanine and see this fascinating family heirloom in person.