Bellefonte

Existence, whereabouts of original Centre County Courthouse clock remains mystery

A view from inside the Bellefonte clock tower on Thursday.
A view from inside the Bellefonte clock tower on Thursday. psheehan@centredaily.com

The Centre County Courthouse cupola houses the town clock, which works to turn the hands of the center dials, which can been seen from several points around town. The four center dials are going to be replaced this year for the first time in more than 50 years, but a closer look into the history of the town clock recalls a question that a local historian has asked for decades.

“The Big Spring,” a historical column authored by the late historian Hugh Manchester, was a staple of the Centre region for more than 40 years before he died in 2001. Manchester’s witty prose, broken by bold-type subheading, first ran in the Centre Democrat, a Bellefonte-based newspaper dating back to the late 1800s.

After the paper closed, Manchester’s column was picked up by the Centre Daily Times. The column often made mention of an original town clock, which was replaced in 1910 and, Manchester believed, shipped to Philipsburg to be used by the borough.

But did the piece of Centre County history make it to Philipsburg and if so, where is it? Manchester said in a 2000 column that the clock would be a “great historical find.”

“What became of the original clock after it journeyed to Philipsburg?” Manchester wrote in one of his pleas for help in uncovering the mystery. “There are first-rate historians in Philipsburg who are quite capable of tracking it down.”

To Philipsburg

Philipsburg historian Walter Swoope said he thinks the clock story is urban legend.

“I remember that story, but I haven’t thought about it for years,” Swoope said. “It just never panned out.”

Swoope offered no answer other than to confirm the story of the missing clock, but he believed Luther Gette, the Philipsburg Historical Foundation curator, might be able to shed light on the story.

After consulting with other local historians, Gette said there were three churches constructed in the town in 1910, but none of them have clocks. He added that there are no cupolas in Philipsburg that have clocks and he doesn’t believe the missing clock is in Philipsburg.

Back To Bellefonte

The Pennsylvania Room at the Centre County Library and Historical Museum is a treasure trove of local history, which is open to the public during the week and the third Saturday of each month. Helping to navigate the museum’s extensive collection is information services librarian Robbin Zirkle.

In the front room of the 19th-century Georgian-style Miles-Humes home, which is now a museum, Zirkle produced a thick folder stuffed with historical information about the courthouse and its construction history, but little about the clock. The folder came from the same shelf that holds Manchester’s complete “Big Spring” series.

Looking Back

Shortly after Bellefonte was designated the county seat, the town was growing and the need for a courthouse was evident. Construction of the original building began in 1805, but conflicting completion dates suggest the structure was completed later the same year or in the spring of 1806. Upon completion, the building was adorned with the oldest known courthouse relic, the fish weather vane.

A hand-drawn map dating back to 1818, which hangs on a wall of the Pennsylvania Room, is believed to be the oldest map of Bellefonte. The map depicts the courthouse with the fish weather vane. Perhaps solidifying its history, the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, completed by the county in 1972 and revised in 1974, recognizes the weather vane as the original.

By 1811, the county experienced more growth, which spurred the addition of two wings to accommodate the increasing demand for court activities.

In 1835, the construction of an ornamental columned front porch would be ordered and completed in the same year, but by 1854 the building had fallen into disrepair.

Acting on the recommendations of court officials, the board of commissioners approved the removal and replacement of the courthouse, except for the columned front porch, which stands today.

Construction of the building was completed in 1855 with the addition of the octagonal cupola with Doric pilasters on all corners. The copper dome, topped with the fish weather vane surmounting a large ball, towered into the Bellefonte sky and would eventually become an iconic image of Centre County.

Inside of the cupola, a town clock controlled the clock hands. A bell forged by Meneely Bell Foundry from West Troy, N.Y., rang overhead as the cogs of the industrial revolution machine continued production. At least one Bellefonte resident liked the new bell. George Dale penned a letter to the foundry in 1856.

“We are well pleased with the bell. It gives excellent satisfaction,” Dale wrote.

The building would exist for 55 years without restrooms, running water or fire protection until the eastern addition and renovation to the courthouse was proposed in 1909. The eastern addition proposal included digging of a basement, which allowed for plumbing and water to be installed. The absence of the basic accommodations was included in a letter sent to the board of commissioners as were a few words about the condition of the town clock.

“The mechanism of the town clock has been repaired and patched so often that it can no longer be considered a time-keeper,” the unknown author suggested.

The interior and exterior upgrades and renovations to the courthouse were approved and completed in 1910. The Centre Democrat published an article later in the year that confirmed who was given the important job of installing the weather vane.

“Who put the big fish on top of the courthouse dome? Why, it was Jack Gentzel and Charles Houser,” The 1910 article read. “It is about 4 feet long and made of copper, and exceedingly heavy. Jack says that it is so high up there that John Dunlap, Billy Hurley, Dave Foreman and others look like red ants walking around on the pavement.”

Records suggest the clock was installed in 1910, but to be sure a trip into the tower seemed like the best bet. Manchester suggested “any tour of the courthouse in Bellefonte has zest added if you climb up in the tower and look at the town clock today.”

Into The Cupola

The wind whistled through the cupola’s wooden louvres on the frigid January morning. Father time guided the clock hands that gave us a new year only five days earlier.

The ascent into the bell room is made on dusty, rickety stairs that resemble a glorified ladder. The sturdy metal of the bell and its supports are a welcomed material change as wood dominates the structure.

Another questionable staircase from the bell room up to the clock room provides doubt about the safety of the journey, but the clock is just ahead.

After safely making it to the clock level there it sits. A magnificently well-preserved, emerald-green colored, E. Howard & Co. timepiece. Its humped-back frame design, which was available in the Boston company’s 1892 catalog, shields the brass movement from damage and the smell of machine oil assures the time on the cupola dials is correct.

For more than 50 years, Rodgers Clock Service in Harrisburg has been maintaining the clock. The maintenance records are etched in chalk on the back wall of the room. In the 1940s, the clock’s weights were removed, the only major work done to the timepiece since it replaced the missing clock.

The clock stands at almost5 feet tall and is about 4 feet wide, and a shaft extends into the upper level of the tower. The most frightening transition is made on a wooden ladder, which provides barely enough room for one person to access the final level where the shaft from below comes through the floor and connects to a gear box. From the gear box four shafts extend to the clock dials and the time is transmitted to the townspeople.

It’s been doing its job since 1910. Any question of whether the clock is the original missing timepiece is likely answered in the clock room. Over the past 100 years, people who have visited the clock tower have written their names on the walls of the room. The oldest names on the walls were scrivened in October 1910 by a group of five men from Boston. Perhaps just the right amount of men needed to carry the cast-iron clock up the questionable, glorified ladders.

The Old Clock

The history of the cupola seems to be clear. The age of the bell coincides with the 1855 construction of the courthouse. The fish weather vane still stands as the oldest courthouse relic. The 1910 renovation included a clock, which functions perfectly today. But where is the old clock?

It’s unclear why Manchester believed the clock was shipped to Philipsburg and because of his death almost 17 years ago, he sadly can’t help. But as he asked in “The Big Spring,” if you know where the clock is, won’t you please help us find it?

It would be a great historical find.

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