Clock Tower

Black Gate Issue 15It’s an exciting week on the publishing front! First, over to the right here is Issue #15 of Black Gate — it is hot off the presses and loaded with stories, including my “World’s End.” This is the first publication of any of my stories in the Agondria cycle. Every issue of Black Gate is like a super-high-quality anthology of sword & sorcery adventure, along with reviews of books, games, an insightful editorial . . . even a cartoon! At 384 pages long, this issue is essentially a book. I am truly honored to be sharing the table of contents with some of the finest writers in the field, including my friend John R. Fultz (who has been interviewed on this blog). Also, I have to tell this story: some months ago, when Editor John O’Neill revealed the wonderful painting he’d purchased for the cover — and knowing some of the stories he’d chosen for inclusion — I remarked to him, “Wow! So this is the Warrior Woman Issue, huh? You chose that cover to match the content!” Actually, he hadn’t — or not consciously, anyway! But he agreed that I was quite right. Sure enough, in the table of contents, he has grouped eight stories into a section under the heading “Special Warrior Woman Issue”! So I had the honor of making one extra contribution to this issue, other than my story — it seems I even helped a tiny bit with the conceptual design (or at least in identifying it)!

Also, Mr. Gordon Van Gelder very kindly sent me a contributor’s copy of Issue #4 of the new Polish language version of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which reprints my Lovecraft-inspired story “The Place of Roots” just before an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin! In Polish, the story is called “Miejsce Korzeni,” and was translated by Konrad Walewski. I am told it was Mr. Walewski who chose my story for inclusion. It’s a tremendous honor to think that, of all the tales published in the long history of F&SF, he selected mine for Issue #4! So my deepest thanks go out to Mr. Walewski, and I salute him, too, for bringing this great magazine to the people of Poland! (This is the second language my fiction has been translated into: “The Bone Man” appeared awhile back in the Russian edition of F&SF.)

For fans of Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations for “The Star Shard” in Cricket: Emily has recently presented me with her amazing book Journey: Sketchbook Volume 3. It’s a beautiful, 96-page softcover collection of her artwork from around the time she worked on my story. One long section of the book is entirely devoted to “The Star Shard,” including conceptual designs, a motion sequence or two, and variations on the appearances and costuming of the characters. Herein are some of the sketches I got to see when we were still in the planning stages, when we were working out how some things should look. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the pre-production world of “The Star Shard,” though most of the images are quite detailed. One of my favorite pages shows the possible looks that might have been given to Bobbin and Argent. Really cool! For anyone who may not yet know: you can view the images for the story in all their full-color glory — and even order prints! — on Emily’s web site at

And now, allow me to change the subject with a monkey wrench: Grrooiinnnkk! A couple weeks ago, some friends from out of town visited me. One highlight of the visit was an opportunity that even many Taylorvillians may not be aware of. Remember our county courthouse, situated on the Square in Taylorville right behind the statue of Lincoln and the pig?

Christian County’s third courthouse, built in 1902

There it is! Well, the man who winds the tower clock once a week is always willing to take visitors along with him. If you can get out of bed to meet him a little before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday — and if you can climb a lot of stairs — he’ll give you a fascinating tour of this historic landmark. A more knowledgeable guide you will not find. His passion for history and mechanics becomes immediately apparent. Eighteen years ago, he escorted me and some Japanese friends up into the clock tower. This time around, knowing it would be just the sort of thing my company would enjoy, I gave him a call, hoping he was still the Clock Man — and he is! 


Seal of Illinois in the First Floor Rotunda

This seal greets you as you enter the courthouse. The building itself, constructed in 1902, is the third courthouse of Christian County. The first, as Lincoln afficionadoes will know, is located now on the grounds of our local historical museum, and is the building in which Lincoln himself practiced law.


Through the attic

My personal favorite part of the ascent is the journey through the dim attic, behind those roof-parts of the courthouse. It’s like being in a mine, with all the brickwork and dust and walkways. Are those dust-motes in my photos, or orbs?

The courthouse attic -- another inspirational source for DRAGONFLY

Seriously — I think this attic was an inspiration for the basement stairway scene in Dragonfly. Does the math work out? If I’m figuring right, 1993 would have been when I first saw this attic. Hmm. Iffy, but very close.

The brickwork of the tower

We’re heading up into the tower here. The wooden walkways really remind me of tourist pathways in commercial caves.

Onward, upward, by shadowy ways

The crowning jewel of the courthouse is a stained-glass dome that for decades was hidden by a false ceiling and all but forgotten. When I made my first trip up into the tower, it was visible in a dark crawlspace, but it was not yet restored.


Return to regions of light

Here, we’re climbing above the dome. You know, this courthouse has inspired two of my short stories as well. One, an unpublished “learning experience,” was called “Hunting the Vampire,” in which two pre-teen boys (heavily based on my nextdoor neighbor and me) become convinced that a vampire has taken up residence in the courthouse tower. Taking it upon themselves to rid the community of this horror, they break into the courthouse at night and ascend the black tower . . . to a somewhat surprising (if inept) ending. I used to inflict that story on my Saturday English students at Nozomi Lutheran Church. I had study guides to go with it and everything.

Early light outside the windows

This dome was discovered beneath four feet of dust! That’s a fact, according to the clock keeper, and he would certainly know. The other story set partly in this courthouse is “Witherwings,” in which a young boy gifted with a special “sight” sees horribly disturbing images in the stained-glass dome that no one else sees. I really like that one!

The restored dome, from above

The center part of the story beneath the dome was removed during the restoration, so that you can now stand in the First Floor Rotunda, tip your head back, and gaze up at the wonder of the dome! (And hope you don’t see horribly disturbing images . . .)

The restored dome, from below

Are you okay? Everyone still here? Whew! It’s quite beautiful.

Emerging into the bell space

You come up this narrow stairway into that open-air part of the tower that you can see from the ground. That’s where the mighty bell crouches.

The clock bell

And just as one of our party was kneeling in front of this bell to take a closeup picture, the bell struck 8:00 a.m. That . . . was . . . LOUD. And now we come into the small housing chamber of the grand clock itself. This clock keeper is only the third man to do the job since 1902. Clock keepers tend to be lifers — people who do the job because they absolutely love it.

Oiling the clock

Back in the fifties and sixties, many weight-driven clocks were gutted and fitted with electric motors. Doing so was a travesty. Aside from their historic value, the weight-powered clocks are simply better. They don’t stop during power failures. Furthermore, in wintry Midwest conditions, clock hands are often blocked in their movement by snow and ice. When this happens, weight clocks will just stop and wait (Do I have to pay the pun fund?). Electric motors will burn themselves out.


Maintaining the clock

Various conditions can affect the clock’s accuracy: temperature, humidity, weather . . . Good clock keepers learn to listen, to know the sounds and rhythms of the mechanics, so that they can hear when something is wrong. Some tiny glitch can occur that may stop the clock many hours later. So if there is a problem, the clock keeper becomes a detective. Did the wind from a certain direction push the clock hand inward just enough to snag on a number on the clock’s face? When might this have happened? And on which of the four clock faces?

This week, the clock was running fast by 25 seconds. (It must be wound once a week, at the same time each week.) Do you see this telephone atop the clock mechanism?

Hotline to the clock

The keeper is able to call the clock from his own cellular phone. By dialing in different codes, he can stop the clock and restart it. While we watched, he stopped the clock for precisely 25 seconds, then restarted it — putting it back on the correct time. And all by phone! He also has cameras set up to “watch” the clock; they stream their images to the Internet, so anyone can watch the clock! (Is it just me, or does this scenario suggest an element of a good murder mystery?)

The crank used by former keepers

The first two keepers used this crank (above) to wind the clock. It’s the bell side of the clock that is by far the harder to wind; you have to raise a weight equivalent (in weight, not size) to a smallish car up four stories to wind the striker. By hand, the process took a good hour, with frequent stops to rest. The current keeper did that once. Then he built himself a motorized attachment, which winds the clock (lifts the weight) in a few minutes. The former keeper did the job until he was in his nineties. At the time he retired, he could still turn the crank with no problem; it was his knees that forced him to quit. He couldn’t climb all the way up there any more.

Hatchway in one clock face

So we’re looking right out through the face of the courthouse clock here! One of the hands is visible.

Taylorville water tower

There’s the northeast corner of the Square (above). Look! Beyond the water tower is the soybean mill which is visible from my yard, which lies still farther east!

North side of the Square

There’s the north side, and the movie theater. I can’t quite see what’s playing. Isn’t it odd? Just a few short months ago, I was taking photos from atop a tower on the other side of the world. Strange feeling. These places we know so well, where we spend our lives . . .

Slave clock on the first floor

This clock on the ceiling of the first floor is tied to the great clock in the tower. What the big faces outside show, this one shows.

Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield, Illinois

Here’s Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield. The long-observed tradition is for visitors to rub Lincoln’s nose for good luck. The nose of this sculpture is bright and shiny. Looks like Tycho Brahe. (I don’t think this practice was observed while Lincoln was alive.)

My place in Taylorville, May 2011

And here’s my place. [Cue the “Concerning Hobbits” soundtrack.]

Looking southwest at my place

What do you say? Good place to end the post? Talk to you soon!

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22 Responses to “Clock Tower”

  1. Shieldmaiden Says:

    What incredible photos Fred. Thank you for posting this. And congratulations on “World’s End” getting published in Black Gate Issue #15. You are right about the cover, it is fantastic and really matches the warrior woman content. When I first saw the cover, before I read the post, I thought it might be the cover art for one of your Agondria stories. How cool your story fits so well with this issue. I love when those things happen.

    When I looked at the tower photos I immediately thought of Dragonfly! I think ascent through the dim attic is very descending the basement stairs!! I don’t know if this place influenced your writing that chapter or not, but it is amazingly like how I imagined parts of it. I am pretty sure those aren’t dust motes 🙂 And thank you for the clock tower tour! I loved the man who winds the tower clock. What an incredible place. Grrooiinnnkk! Has anyone read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick? It is a great book. (The photos made me think of it)

    I cant wait to check out Emily’s book!

  2. Chris Says:

    Freaky views of T-ville from up there. Hardly recognizable. Kind of sad because when you’re down _in_ the Square you have this feeling of the town expanding out around you and enfolding you deeply, but from up there you can see out to the countryside and you realize T-ville is this really small point on the vast plain of Illinois.

  3. patrickdoud Says:

    Such a fascinating photo essay! What with the concise descriptions and lucid explanations, the fine choice of detail and the supporting photographs, I can practically smell the dust, machine oil, aged wood and metal. The story of how the crank worked, the man who wielded it into his nineties, and how the current keeper changed the mechanism is poignant enough, but to see the image of the crank lying on the floor… good stuff!

    By the way, not exactly in answer to your (probably rhetorical) question, “does this scenario suggest an element of a good murder mystery?”: Have you ever seen the 1948 film The Big Clock? An excellent film-noir with Ray Milland involving a murder and the interior of–yes–a big clock. (But no webcams involved, naturally.)

    Looking forward to reading the story in Black Gate!

  4. Daylily Says:

    Thanks for the guided tour of the clock tower! I love armchair tours; they’re the next best thing to being there. And I love stained glass; that dome is indeed a treasure. I’m glad it’s no longer buried under all that dust. Thanks very much for including a picture of the soybean mill! Now I can see how the mill inspired your poem “Summerdark” about the “ancient city of renown.”

    Congratulations on the two publications!

    • Chris Says:

      I assume Fred is not unlike me. I have about 10,000 photographs of that bean mill from my front yard (just down the road from Fred’s childhood front yard). When we started getting into cameras I used mine largely to photograph that beanmill.

      It’s the massive behemoth on the horizon. The largest thing in sight and like some distant monstrous city always too far away but permanently there.

  5. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thank you very much for the comments, you four! I really enjoyed them — I’m delighted that you liked the photo tour!

    To clarify one point, just in case I caused a misunderstanding: the clock keeper didn’t change anything about the clock mechanism! I’ve read his excellent and detailed advice to keepers of large clocks, and he is vehement about preserving historical clocks. He believes there’s no change you can make to such a timepiece that will “improve” it. A keeper should wind, clean, and oil a clock . . . if s/he knows how, repairs may be needed (and Taylorville’s clock keeper is happy to consult with any other who wishes to contact him). He built an independent machine to make the winding easier, but this is still completely a weight-driven clock. He makes the point that if the clock stops, that’s okay: if you can’t fix it today, then tomorrow you or someone else can try again. But if you go altering it, then you are destroying a treasure that has existed much longer than you. It’s like touching or otherwise damaging living cave formations! [I added that last part.]

    Chris, about the aerial view of Taylorville, and how you can see the town’s narrow boundaries: for me, that has always been the mixed enchantment and sadness of the Ferris wheel. At the heart of that merry, winking, bustling fair midway on a summer night, the mighty wheel lifts you up toward the stars. Up there, you can see what a tiny circle the bright carnival is. You can see out to the cars parked, and the sleepy, glowing lights of the town. But all around that, stretching to the horizons, is the vast, velvet darkness of the open cornlands. It’s a symbol of the brevity of life, I guess — our limitations and the inevitability of change. As children, we play around down there among the merry-go-rounds and cotton candy stands, and it’s all we see. But the time comes when we have to go out into that darkness — maybe to other, bigger, lighted cities on the plain — maybe farther still. Maybe we come back, as I have done, and then head in new directions. But the midway only seems endless when we’re very young.

    From a short way out, I guess, the Earth itself is that small, glowing circle surrounded by darkness and distance . . . which in turn may lead away to wonders beyond our imagining.

  6. patrickdoud Says:

    Oh, rats: my first comment on the blog and I’ve messed up already. What you wrote about the superiority of weight-driven clocks needs no clarification. The only change I was referring to was that from hand winding to motorized winding. I do apologize, and hope I have not given offense.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Oh, not one bit, Patrick! Your comment was very clear, and no apologies are necessary! I just wanted to be sure that I hadn’t misrepresented the clock keeper, who is such a defender of historical clocks!

      No offense was given or taken — quite the contrary! I’m honored that you’re here, and I know I speak for everyone in hoping you’ll comment whenever you feel like it!

  7. Chris Says:

    Two notes:
    1. The view to the north also showed the phone company building. When I was young and my dad was a central office supervisor there was a gigantic room in there with banks and banks of electrical switches. My dad told me that one day all that giant room would be condensed down to about the size of a computer. Which I believe it may be today. But to be honest I don’t know as I’ve not been in that building since I was little kid and dad retired in about 1984.

    2. Rubbing Lincoln’s nose: well, it is doubtful that people rubbed the nose on the statue outside his tomb while he was still alive as that would have really creeped him out (to have a tomb before he died), but otherwise I actually DO think people would come from all over the U.S. to rub the ACTUAL Lincoln’s nose. It annoyed him greatly until one day when he started punching people for doing it. One day a young group of Southerners came up and were busy rubbing his nose when he got really mad and hit them. That caused them to be offended and decide to secede from the Union in a huff and that’s why we had the Civil War.

    There, your history lesson for the day.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      The footnote to this history lesson: the actual Lincoln’s nose became so shiny from all the rubbing that all his historical little pig (TM) friends became envious. Lincoln wrote a now-famous letter to his friend Thomas Edison at Edison’s Gettysburg address to ask if something might be done. (The letter was written on the back of an envelope, and Lincoln famously wrapped it in a piece of letter stationery in order to mail it.) Edison promptly invented the shiny brass pig nose ring, which he tested by affixing it to a kite during a thunderstorm. When the nose rings were delivered to Christian County and attached to the pigs’ noses under the now-famous First Courthouse (TM), there was much rejoicing. [To this day, the Shriners ride their motorized tricycles in tight circles to commemorate the Chasing Down of the Pigs.] Nose Ring Day is still celebrated in Taylorville on the first Sunday after the third full moon in June under a solar eclipse.

      • Scott Says:

        Thank you for that Fred. I’m almost laughing too hard to type! In fact, I was laughing too hard and had to calm down to post this.

  8. Shieldmaiden Says:

    Snowflake, where are you?? You are missed man.

  9. morwenna Says:

    Fred, congratulations on your exciting publishing news.

    I loved the piece about the clock tower. The post brought to mind the many fantasy books that feature significant clocks, from John Bellairs’ The House With the Clock in Its Walls (a magical doomsday clock) to The Borrowers (the tiny Clock family take their surname from a grandfather clock in the huge house of the “human beans”).

    Welcome, Patrick!

    Brown Snowflake, I second Shieldmaiden. You are missed!

  10. tandemcat Says:

    Congratulations on the landmark success as a writer!

    I do want to see the insides of that clock some day! It’s amazing how the clock-winder adapted modern technology to the clock without actually changing the original mechanism. The clock itself and the “rediscovered” stained-glass ceiling are glorious, but my favorite part is the slave clock on the first floor!

    The electrical clock conversions remind me of how, when I first arrived at the Lutheran school where I taught for 21 years, the candles on the altar in the sanctuary had been converted to electricity–hollow cardboard tubes with light bulbs at the tops. When I was able, I suggested that if we used real candles instead, we could involve the kids in the service as acolytes. This did take place, thank God.

    I can’t help but think, with all the counties in each state of the Union (and I know not all of them have courthouses with clock towers, but many do), how many courthouses and clocks must there be all over the country? It would be wonderful to see every one!

  11. Daylily Says:

    Perhaps Sir Brown Snowflake has gone off on a quest! If so, I hope he finds that which he seeks.

  12. Mike Says:

    Great to see these photos, Fred! My Dad took us kids up the clock tower when we were little. The clock winder seemed incredibly ancient, and the attic with the clock mechanism and bell was incredibly cool and scary at the same time.

  13. Marquee Movies Says:

    I really enjoyed this posting, as well as the wonderful pictures. Will anyone blame me if, while reading this, I constantly had the sound and image of a woman shaking a collection can in front of me, shouting, “Save the clock tower!” (Movie reference.) I especially was caught by the photo that says, “Hatchway in one clock face.” Looking, not just out of the tower, but THROUGH one of the hands themselves – wow! That has the feeling of two amazing things happening at once, like getting your first kiss just as Haley’s Comet swoops by overhead.
    The reason I’m posting this today (although I suspect that the post will be dated according to Japanese time) is because this is June Eve. I was always thrilled whenever Fred would tell me of how he’d celebrate this made-up holiday. He LOVED summer so much, that May 31st was his New Year’s Eve, the date when all the old days (i.e., the boring school days) ended, and real life (i.e., tons of reading and writing) could begin. I usually forget to commemorate June Eve ON the date itself, and I go running to Fred to complain. His response is always the same.
    A) It’s a made-up holiday. I made it up. Therefore, you can celebrate however or WHENever you wish.
    B) The REAL holiday is Midsummer – I didn’t make THAT one up. That’s a time for celebrating summer as well.
    So, digesting that, I usually try and start each summer off with something extra special, something unusual. Two summers ago, the wife and I went to the Grease singalong at a theatre in Chicago – it was a blast, and was a great way to kick off the summer. Was it right on June Eve? No – but it was near it, and therefore that was my June Eve.
    So – until I come up with this year’s official summer splurge, it’s June Eve. How will you guys honor the arrival of summer? Maybe you already have. Remember, it’s got to be something that you wouldn’t normally do – kind of like a Carpe Diem thing. (That’s my silly rule.) But either way – Happy June Eve, everyone! Welcome summer.

    • Shieldmaiden Says:

      Was the, “Save the clock tower!” from Back to the Future? It has been years and years so I am probably wrong, but that’s my guess.

      I love the June Eve holiday idea. I will be celebrating… I’ll let you know what I figure out to do. You know, besides counting down the school days! (8 to go)

  14. fsdthreshold Says:

    It’s great to read of June Eve! (The holiday was officially created for my first finished book, The Threshold of Twilight, that oft-revised learning experience of my high school and college years. June Eve with the Fir Darigs is a night to be remembered!)

    I remember a particularly wonderful June Eve some ten or fifteen years ago, when my dad and I watched Field of Dreams together. (It wasn’t the first time for either of us, but it was a great time!)

    This year, my June Eve celebration had two parts: a boat ride with family on our local lake after dark (stars blazing overhead, dark forest all around, gentle breezes, and the lanterns and bonfires of lake lots along the shore, like Christmas among the trees); and going out to my old road where I grew up, where I took some pictures just at sundown. Those will likely be appearing on this blog before long; they’re in conjunction with a special posting that one of you will be helping me with . . .

  15. Marquee Movies Says:

    Fred, I LOVED reading about your June Eve activities. What a way to welcome the summer! I want to follow up on my comment that the wife and I have yet to find our “June Eve” celebration – but I think we’ve found one. Susan has said that she wants to try one of those fancy movie theatres where they serve you dinner while you watch the movie. I have resisted such things, because I think you should just watch the movie – but I keep hearing what a pampering experience it is, and seeing as how I’ve never done it before, THAT will be our kick-off-the-summer June Eve celebration. I’ll let the readers here know how it went! As long as I have your ear – I’m recommending Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (in theatres now), and on DVD, Tangled, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and True Grit (the recent version). Enjoy the summer – it’s still early!

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