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Clock face
Photo by Doug Prince

A Familiar Face

By Michelle Gregoire '99

Oh! How I love thee old clock,
Keeper of time,
Time which gives life,
Time which takes life.
An instrument to let the mind wonder
And an instrument to
be used by all.
by G.H.

--Poem written in pencil on a wall of the clock room in the tower of Thompson Hall. Undated.

At the beginning of the last century, students at the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts could set their pocket watches by the pealing of the enormous bell in the Thompson Hall tower. During the day, as they hurried to class, they could glance at the time on the tower clock, for it was visible from nearly any place on campus. In later years, they could also check the time at night, after an editorial in The New Hampshire in 1916 urged the college to illuminate the tower clock and offered student assistance with the electrical wiring.

This same clock, installed in 1893, still marks the time today, although it no longer rings the bell on the hour. Built by the E. Howard Tower and Street Clock Company of Boston, it is one of the few antique mechanical tower clocks in New England still running on a pendulum, according to Guy Eaton, director of housekeeping services and present-day keeper of the clock. "This was one of my first responsibilities as a supervisor when I got the job in 1978," he says. "The care and nurture of this clock has been mine ever since." He is one of a select few. His predecessor, Albert Mitchell, head janitor of Thompson Hall for 50 years, seldom missed a day of work and wound the clock religiously. Clock duty now usually falls to the maintenance staff of Thompson Hall, but Eaton winds it on long weekends and during vacations, bringing his children to teach them a lost art.

The clock has two main gears: one clicks off the movements of the pendulum and moves the hands on the clock faces on three sides of the tower. The other, now disengaged, would ring the bell above at preordained times. Around the gears are steel cables, wound onto the gears with a large crank. The whole assembly takes up the space of a large closet. In 1924, a cable snapped and 700 pounds of weights plummeted through two floors into the office of Walter C. O'Kane, professor of entomology and state moth inspector, smashing nearly 400 valuable lantern slides, the precursor to overhead projector transparencies. The following year, some prankster tied two glass cider jugs to the cable leading to the bell, throwing the clock out of gear and causing it to strike the bell continuously at 11 p.m. It caused quite a commotion, for in those days, the bell was used as the general alarm for a fire.

The bell was also rung for special occasions on campus such as compulsory convocation and events of nationwide importance. It "sang for hours" on Armistice Day in 1918, according to a 1940 editorial in The New Hampshire, quite a feat of strength, considering that when the bell rolled over, the thick rope could lift a man of 170 pounds. The bell was also tolled long and hard to declare football victories, and 1921 was a year to remember, with wins over Army and Holy Cross joyously proclaimed by hour after hour of steady bell ringing. Those victorious Saturday nights are commemorated in the graffiti scribbled on the pine plank walls by the bell ringers. Etched in elegant script:

8 o'clock
Oct. 1, 1921
NH 10
Army 1
RTS Campbell

Campbell was one of the first bell ringers to leave his name on the walls of the clock tower, a tradition followed by dozens through 1961, despite one dour soul's warning:

Fools (sic) names
are like their faces
always seen in public places.

"Tradition saved" follows the score of a 1953 victory (UNH 7, Springfield 0), accompanied by the names of Norris Browne '55, Larry Bougie '55, Bud Carrick '55, Jim Murray '58 and Jack Hoey '56.

Now the old bell is quiet, its clapper gone, replaced by a carillon in 1952. But the pendulum still swings, the gears tick off the minutes, and the hands sweep across the three clock faces just as they did in 1893. And people still check the time on the tower clock, Eaton knows, for he gets a call from the president's office when it needs to be adjusted. ~

Michelle Gregoire '99 is a free-lance writer in Madbury, N.H.

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