Underground Railroad Clock

The understated dial gives this clock case a quiet dignity

The understated dial gives this clock case a quiet dignity

I seldom copy furniture designs but this tall case clock is an exception. The original sat in the parlor of an early 19th century farmhouse that was a stop on the underground railroad for smuggling fugitive slaves into Canada. Just a few feet from where the clock sits, hidden within the walls, an impossibly narrow spiral staircase snakes its way from a fire wood box in the basement kitchen to a cramped  secret chamber in the attic three floors up. The Quaker family that lived in the house put together an ingenious ruse to thwart discovery. They installed bee hives in the attic with narrow slots in the gable ends for the bees to enter. If slave hunters demanded to search the attic, it was pointed out that the bees get excited with unannounced guests, but they were certainly free to look. No one decided to risk it.

Secret stairway built into the walls of the house

Secret stairway built into the walls of the house

I copied the original clock and donated it to the historical society to raise funds for the upkeep of the building. It breaks a few rules in clock case construction but in this case, that was what was called for. Not sure if it underwent some heavy handed repairs by someone not familiar with clock construction or was built by a frontier builder with limited knowledge. It’s a bit of a mystery as the original clock has a nice brass 18th century movement with an imported English painted dial.  Copies get a bad rap in creative circles these days and it’s a shame. Here’s a short clip of of renowned architects Alvin Holm and John Blattaeu discussing the role that copying once played in our tradition.  It has some poor audio in the first 30 seconds but their wisdom is worth reflection.

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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3 Responses to Underground Railroad Clock

  1. Chris Bame says:

    Thanks for the post George. Great story about the clock and copying. As one who “copies” antiques from time to time it was music to my ears. I think even when we copy we infuse our selves into the new creation. Isn’t that what pushes it all forward.

  2. Jack Plane says:

    Excellent guidance for us all George. I am a self-taught woodworker and gained my skills through the close examination of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture.

    Most cabinetmakers during that period were copiers too, however, as is human nature; when one’s skills become finely honed, one sees ways in which certain methods and techniques can be improved upon, and so, progress unravels. This subtle, natural order is inevitably more visually satisfying than spontaneous invention.

  3. Excellent and very refreshing post George. Copying is really a fundamental of which creativity is built upon. One must learn the basics first, and for those of us who have not been formally trained copying is our instructor. Only after we have learned the fundamentals can we expand upon them and discover our creative side. I have found this to be true in more things than woodworking. It is how we as apprentices learned our trade, it is how I am learning to play guitar, it is how we learned to cook…. Thanks for the great post!

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