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Rural Missouri Magazine
A clock lost in time
How a lost apostles clock captured Tom Atteberry's imagination

by Jeff Joiner

Clockmaker Mark Meadows examines a 19th-century apostle clock once owned by self-described hermit Tom Atterberry .A friend of Atteberry, Meadows is trying to find a home for the clock.

Joy Burr stands between the kitchen and the living room of a small mobile home and describes how the place looked when Tom Atteberry was still alive and lived there.

“He didn’t have much in the way of furniture,” says Joy. “Right here was his kitchen table and he had one little corner that he ate off of. He had a little bed next to the machinery where he slept.”

“There was sawdust all over the place,” adds Joy’s husband, J.R. “Over there he had a table saw and back yonder he had a metal lathe.”

In the corner sits a large, ornately decorated wooden cabinet with tiny doors, carved arched windows and a beautifully carved clock face with four dials. The 5-foot-tall Ketterer Clock sits right where Atteberry left it when he died.

The clock, built by a virtually unknown 19th-century Pennsylvania coal miner named Charles Ketterer, has absorbed the energy and intellect of three craftsmen in 40 years who attempted, unsuccessfully, to restore it. They also attempted to learn why Ketterer spent three years of his life building the machine in the 1870s only to have it disappear along with the story of its obscure builder.

The Ketterer Apostolic Excelsior Clock found its way to Missouri in 1990 when Atteberry, a retired machinist, bought the clock and moved it to his Table Rock Lake trailer home. Interestingly, Atteberry was just the latest person fascinated to the point of obsession with an oddity known as an apostles clock.

Tom Atteberry

“I think the Ketterer Clock is a work of a genius and I think Tom was a genius,” says Mark Meadows of Cassville, recalling his friend who died of cancer in 2001.

Atteberry, a self-described hermit, lived in the trailer on Table Rock Lake at the end of a 20-mile gravel lane near Shell Knob. Fiercely protective of his privacy, Tom just wanted to be left alone and to work on the magnificent clock, says Burr. “He just loved that clock. He wanted to get it running again and if he’d had more time he would’ve done it.”

Despite his eccentric nature, Atteberry was known by a few select friends as a man who could do anything he set his mind to. He was a master machinist, woodworker and carver, gunsmith and clockmaker. After buying the Ketterer Clock in 1990, Atteberry turned his trailer into a machine and wood shop. He laid down a thick wooden floor and braced it to support the weight of the heavy machinery he brought in to begin making clock parts. He also began researching the clock’s fascinating history.

Following the Civil War a number of clockmakers began a game of one-upsmanship, building ever larger “monumental” clocks which they toured up and down the East Coast. Monumental clocks were massive, complicated timepieces incorporating dozens of moving figures and musical components contained in intricately carved cabinets.

A procession of the 12 apostles moves past a figure of Jesus in a clock made in 1872. The clock’s last owner, Tom Atteberry of Shell Knob, died before he realized his dream of making the clock work again.

Arguably the grandest was the Engle Monument Clock which stood 11 feet tall, stretched 9 feet long and was touted by enthusiastic promoters as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The Engle Clock contained more than 48 moving figures including a procession of the 12 apostles passing in front of a figure of Jesus, the central theme of apostles clocks.

In the 1870s and ’80s several more apostles clocks were built and a keen competition developed among makers to attract crowds to exhibitions.
Though both Engles and Fiester were famous in the East for their clocks, Ketterer remains a mystery. Described in advertisements as a coal miner with no background in clock making, Ketterer is said to have worked in near poverty to create his clock using little more than a pair of pocketknives. The claim is probably a promotional exaggeration given the detail of his carvings.

Though the Ketterer Clock hasn’t operated for a century, based on a newspaper account from the time we know how it worked. The clock face contained four dials showing the hours, the minutes, the day of the week and the day of the month.

The clock face contained four dials showing the hours, the minutes, the day of the week and the day of the month.

The 12 apostles, mounted on a geared carousel, emerged from doors and passed before a figure of Jesus where each one turned to face Christ. The figure of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, carried a money bag in the procession and passed without turning.

When the apostles emerged bells struck until Peter passed Jesus causing a carved mechanical rooster mounted on the clock to crow, to symbolize Peter’s denial of Jesus.

Just as the competition did with their clocks, Ketterer took his timepiece on the road in the mid-1870s. He advertised it as “The Great $20,000 Clock,” another case of promotional hyperbole. By 1877 Ketterer was strapped financially and the clock was last shown in July 1877 in Covington, Ohio. Then it disappeared.
In 1962 the clock was rediscovered in the basement of a Covington pool hall.

It’s believed Ketterer gave the clock away to satisfy a debt. But what became of Ketterer? Robert Holmes, a collector who bought the clock in 1972, spent countless hours searching for records of the man’s fate, but not a single clue was unearthed.

The clock features complex handmade wooden parts. To date, no one has managed to get the clock working again.

In 1990, after working on the clock off and on for nearly 20 years, Holmes sold it to Atteberry, who brought it to Missouri.

Meadows says if anyone could have figured out how to make the clock work, it was Atteberry a machinist who once did contract work for NASA.

Meadows says that though Atteberry did manage to make a few replacement parts for the clock, his health prevented him from realizing his dream of making the clock work again.

When Atteberry died he left his lake trailer, machinery and the clock to the Burrs who helped care for him in his final months of life. The Burrs sold all the machinery to pay off Atteberry’s debts and now are looking for someone with a passion for historical clocks to buy the Ketterer Clock.

“Tom knew what the clock needed, but he kept stuff in his head,” says Meadows.
It’s ironic that both Ketterer and Atteberry shared a passion for a machine but left little clues for anyone to follow in their footsteps. Now it awaits someone to finish the job.

For information about the Ketterer Clock call or e-mail Meadows at (417) 847-4145; or e-mail marktime@ozarkmark.com.

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