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Rural Missouri Magazine

 

Time on their hands
Residents of St. Thomas mark the passage of time
by the steady beat of their clock

by Jim McCarty

A small metal door on each clock dial gives access to the hands and also offers the intrepid a commanding view of the countryside. The St. Thomas clock tower is unusual in that it has four clock faces.

Sitting in the woods while hunting near his home in St. Thomas, Bill Luebbering never has to check his watch to know what time it is. He just listens to the bells ringing across the fields from St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

Every 15 minutes the clock located at the top of the lofty church spire tolls the bells. The deep tones can be heard for miles around.

For nearly a hundred years they have called parishioners to worship or just let them know day is done. So regular is the chiming of the clock that most in the town don't give it a second thought.

"It's something you take for granted but whenever I drive into town I notice it," says the Rev. Don Antweiler, pastor of the church. "I use my wrist watch a lot more but whenever I'm out and can see it I look up to see what time it is."

Adds Bill, "It rings every 15 minutes but you don't notice it. Even in mass this morning, I don't remember the bells ringing but they did."

Bill is one in a line of parishioners who have volunteered to keep the clock running over the years. The task was his for 10 years before he passed it on to Dale Herigon. He says the clock never has needed much attention besides a regular oiling.

Bill Luebbering is one of the parishioners who keeps the clock running. Although he once machined a new camshaft for the ancient mechanism, he says the clock requires little besides an occasional oiling.

"It's amazing," he says. "It will tick tock and keep going once you start the pendulum. It's phenomenal. You'd think after awhile it would just quit swinging."

The clock mechanism that keeps the town on time is a marvel of engineering. It's a 2-foot by 3-foot cast iron frame packed with springs, gears and levers. Except for its size, it resembles a clock movement that might power a mantle clock.

It even has a small dial and clock hands that are used to set the giant hands on the clock tower.

But instead of striking gongs located nearby, this clock movement must ring four bells located 30 feet above. It does this through a series of cables that snake through the ceiling to pull strikers located high overhead.

Depending on the time, they strike different bells so that those in earshot can tell between quarter, half and hourly times. This seemingly impossible task is accomplished with many precision-made gears and cogs that result in a gentle tug on the striking cables at just the right time.

Cast iron weights hanging below the clock mechanism provide the power to keep the pendulum swinging. Originally one of the parishioners had to remember to crank the weights up to the top each day. Now electric motors, signaled by a switch at the bottom of the weight's travel, do the work.

Getting to the clock tower requires a series of climbs, first up a steep stairway and then up ladders.

Once one of the little shafts wore out and the clock got a little confused. It started ringing non-stop in the middle of the night. "That clock rang a million times," Bill recalls with a chuckle.

Bill located the problem and made a replacement part from a bolt since no parts for the mechanism exist. Now the clock has an electronic timer that shuts it off after so many rings. "That was six or seven years ago — no problems since," Bill says.

He says the clock rarely stops. Normally only ice collecting on the giant hands brings it to a halt. Then someone has to make the treacherous climb up the inside of the tower to clear the ice.

Behind each of the four 3-foot-diameter clock faces is a tiny door that offers access to the hands. Looking out from the door, the intrepid climber is rewarded with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

For the most part the clock keeps good time. But dramatic changes in the weather usually throw it off.

"The trouble is all the workings are not enclosed and so they react to the weather," says the priest. "The metal in it expands or contracts and so sometimes the clock will be off five minutes or so just because the working parts are exposed."

In 1948 the clock stopped when a tornado made a direct hit on the church steeple. The strong winds broke the steeple off just above the roof line.

From just about anywhere in the little village of St. Thomas you can see and hear the clock, which tolls its four bells every 15 minutes. The present St. Thomas the Apostle Church was built in 1883. The clock was added in 1919.

A photo hanging in the back of the church shows the clock mechanism and the dials buried in rubble. Somehow the clock was repaired and put back in service in the tower, apparently no worse for wear.

When the church was built in 1883 the clock was not part of the structure. It was added in 1919. Gerhard Bersmeyer donated the clock in memory of his son Henry who died in World War I. The four bronze bells were also donated by parishioners.

Clock towers are relatively uncommon in Missouri. Central Missouri churches at Westphalia, St. Elizabeth and Vienna have clock towers. But St. Thomas is somewhat unique in having four clock faces on its tower.

The four sets of hands keep the same time because they are fed off an ingenious gear box. One shaft goes into the bottom of the box and four sets of drive shafts come out of it and in turn go to the clock faces.

Once at the church's annual picnic Bill made the climb to the clock face and stuck his head out the window. Instead of the usual bim-bam strike of the clock, he bellowed "cuckoo, cuckoo."

That may have been the last time anyone in St. Thomas really noticed the clock ticking off the minutes high overhead.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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