I have an interest in sharing family history. I also like and am intrigued by clocks. I've had a fascination for them since I was a child being raised back in Carterville, Illinois. In Mom and Dad's home, two clocks always drew my attention. The first was a small, "Dancing Ballerina Clock” from the 1940s. The clock is pictured, below.
The stage area of the clock had a small light that illuminated the dancing, circling ballerina as a music box played. You pushed a knob on the rear of the clock to turn a small light on, and at the same time, you had to spin that same, small knob to start the music playing and the ballerina dancing. I would play with that clock often as it sat on a table that once belonged to my grandma. The dancing ballerina clock rested on a decorative, white, lace doily to protect the inlaid wooden tabletop. I still see it clearly in my mind's eye.
On a wall opposite that clock in the same room, hung a very elaborate, German cuckoo clock. It was one of several that my brother-in-law, Joe DeFrank, husband of my sister, Lois Beltz DeFrank, sent home back to the US when he was stationed in the military in Germany in the early 1950s. Joe sent several of them home as gifts to family, including his mother-in-law, my Mom, Imogene Beltz. The cuckoo clock was hand-made and carved in the Black Forest. It struck on the hour, with a door opening to reveal a slowly rocking, blue cuckoo bird, "cuckooing" the hour. As that door closed, a second small door next to it opened and a tiny, carved, music box "violin musician" could be seen as he played, "The Blue Danube Waltz". I always loved that old clock. It was my job as a child to keep it wound by pulling the chains to lift the heavy "pine cone" weights.
I used to sit and watch the green and orange painted, grape-leaf-shaped pendulum, swing as I was counting off the seconds. It always made a faint clicking sound a split second before striking. The clock was all very colorful and detailed, hand carved wood, including wood antlers on the deer head that crowned the clock. (Newer versions feature some plastic parts, including the deer antlers that would be too time consuming and fragile, as well as too difficult to hand carve today). The cuckoo clock had almost a living presence in our home. I pointed it out proudly to all my friends and told them the story of how we came to have it. Mom knew I loved that old clock and I often told her to never get rid of it. The clock and the story behind it always needed to stay in the family.
Years after I left home, I was back in Carterville, visiting one weekend. I was in Mom's living room, standing before the clock, looking at it when Mom walked in. The clock wasn't ticking. I asked Mom if it was broken. She said she just didn't think about winding it anymore. I reached over and started the pendulum. It began ticking away. I manually moved the clock hand on the clock face to the top of the hour. It triggered the clock to strike. It still worked fine. I told Mom she should run it every now and then, just to keep the mechanism working.
Lloyd Harvill, the owner of the local jewelry store in town, had worked on the clock at one time, repairing a broken spring in the mechanism. I remember him saying the clock was unique and fragile because, over the years, wood in the decorative pieces and housing had dried and become very brittle. After that, I was always extra careful dusting it while living at home. Mom looked to me and said, "Take the clock back home to Peoria with you. It's always been special to you. Take care of it and keep it in the family. Let your kids know the story behind the clock." After some bantering back and forth, I agreed and the clock was carefully removed from the wall, boxed, and was later placed on the wall in our home. I ran it occasionally, but it was running slow. I took it to Whaley's Clock Shop in Peoria once to have it cleaned, oiled, and adjusted. When I went to pick it up, the owner spoke to me at length about the clock and asked if I was interested in selling it. I told him the clock had sentimental, family value. It returned back to its place of honor on the wall in our home.
I was dusting one day long ago, and a wooden antler came loose, falling to the floor. The brittle wood shattered in a half-dozen pieces. I was devastated. Once later, while speaking to Lois and Joe on the phone, I mentioned the broken antler. Joe told me to bring the broken pieces and the matching, unbroken antler home with me on the next trip I made to Marion. Joe's brother-in-law, Paul Baralle, was a skilled woodworker. The items were given to Paul. In a few weeks, I received a duplicate, hand-carved and stained antler that Paul made to replace the broken one. The clock was again in pristine condition. There is a bit of irony about that clock that I think is priceless. Years later I was at an auction one weekend. There on a table, boxed, wrapped in old newspapers, was the exact duplicate of the cuckoo clock I had at home. It had the same German paper label marking-tags pasted to the wooden clock housing, the same trim, even the same wooden antlers. I was not leaving the sale without that clock! I waited and waited. The crowd thinned. It was toward the end of the night and the auctioneer was flying over tables. He came to the table the boxed clock was on and said, "Take your choice from the table! What am I bid?" For $8, the clock was mine! The second clock is now in my den, downstairs in our home. Why two clocks? Each has its own story, and I have two daughters. I hope at some future time one clock will go to each daughter, along with the knowledge that each sister has a matching item and a family history story to smile and pass along to one of their own children.
My love of clocks carried on into grade and high school. A man who owned a local filling station in my hometown collected them, repaired, and sold them. Jeff Corbett operated a "Cities Service" gasoline station. At that time, your gas was pumped for you by a "Filling Station Attendant" who greeted you as you drove up to the gas pump. There as you sat resting comfortably and waited, your automobile was filled with gasoline, your windshield was cleaned, and your oil and tire pressure was checked. I first met Jeff while stopping at his station to air-up my bicycle tires. I ventured inside to buy a candy bar and was stopped, cold in my tracks. The interior walls of the station were covered with ticking, striking, antique clocks of every size and shape imaginable! I visited that station often, looking at clocks as I asked Jeff questions about them. Jeff shared my same fascination with clocks and was proud to show them to me as he directed my attention to unique features that made each clock special.
I think my early years at home as a child and those specific clocks and the stories behind them became the foundation for my liking, noticing, buying, and keeping some clocks. I'm not a fanatic clock collector. I actually know little about them, aside from the ones that have invaluable, special meaning to me. I respect the skill of people who can work on them, and understand how interest in them could turn into an obsession. But my interest in them lies in my childhood and in a small role clocks have played in our family history. My own children and grandchildren see a number of clocks in our family home today. The clocks I've mentioned are there. There are also two grandfather clocks in the house and a variety of other clocks that I bought just because I liked them. But they don't have the family, childhood history connection with me of a dancing ballerina or an echoing, chiming cuckoo.
I don't know that children today even develop a connection to "objects" in a home and relate them to family history. I'm sure some do, if family members take the time with children to share the stories with them and make the connection of family history to the item. I took the time recently to talk to my grandson, Preston, about the two grandfather clocks at opposite ends of our home. I caught him standing silently one day, carefully studying the detail of the larger of the two clocks. I pointed out features of the clock cabinet construction, and of the mechanism that was visible behind the beveled glass door reveling the intricate clock mechanism. We talked about how it worked in unison with the slowly swinging pendulum and bright brass weights. I asked him if he would mind winding the clock weights for me. I explained to him how the winding "key" worked and how they unlock the glass door on the front of the clock face. He was anxious to. Now, every time he visits our home, he goes to those clocks, and gathers the keys, to wind the weights in both. I'm happy he does because it shows me that those clocks have a meaning, story, and family connection now to him.
Today we live in a disposable, throw-away society. Things are consumed and replaced. Items that have sentimental and family value to a person from one generation, often have no, or little value at all to those in the next generation. So, as generations pass, those items are placed in boxes and are sold at garage sales and auctions. Their history and stories are lost. I think that's sad. It takes an effort to keep family history alive. Those of you reading this are the guardians of that history. You lived the stories that need to be passed along. You know the connection and stories behind the "clock-like" items in your home. So please, make an effort to share these stories that they aren't lost in your silent, future absence. Show the items to your children and grandchildren and share the stories and their intrinsic, family history value with them to keep some small piece of that history to be passed along from generation to generation. You are a walking, talking, loved, and respected family historian whose wealth of information about family events and important memories can never be replaced. Share the wisdom you hold. Tell younger generations of family members whom you love, about the "dancing ballerina clock" in your home and why it has special family meaning you hope they remember long into the future.
At auctions I sometimes still attend, I often see personal, family items, letters, documents, and photos. They are usually removed from homes after the passing of an elderly family member. Taken from drawers, closets, and box storage, those items end-up on an auction table to be sold to the highest bidder. At some time, each item meant enough to someone to be saved. Each item held a special meaning. Sometimes, family members are too grief-stricken to ever go through them. A company may even be hired to tend to the task of removing and sorting all items in a home. I look through those items with curiosity about what their importance and valued meaning was, and wonder what stories the owner could have proudly shared with me while showing me a photo, a saved item, or explaining the meaning of a hand-written inscription message scrawled within a book cover. I place them back to the table and walk on, looking with interest at the next, anonymous item, and hope to myself that the remnant, bits, and pieces of my life memories will never be disposed of to the "highest bidder". I don't think mine will be. What about you?
About the Author
Gene Beltz is a retired, professional educator. Having spent 12 years teaching high school Language Arts, 30 years serving as a Grade School Principal, and State and Federal Programs Director. He has a great interest in current events, politics, family, and travel. "I see learning and sharing as life-long experiences to embrace and grow from. I have friends across the spectrum of issues that I respect, admire, and often discuss differing sides of issues with. Above all, I love family and cherish my wife, children, and grandchildren. I hope my comments create smiles, thought, and sometimes even stir people to action. I think a well-informed public makes our nation wiser, safer, and stronger. I love our country, rejoice in her greatness, and am proud of her efforts to constantly move forward to be better. There is much more about me and my life you may sense as you read my stories and comments I share here with you. I hope you find them enjoyable!"
Contributor since January 23rd, 2018