Last updateThu, 17 May 2018 7am

Jeweler repairs town’s old courthouse clock


Jim McBride is retired now as the owner of Davie Jewelers. But with his son and daughter-in-law managing the store Jim still works there part-time. Punctuality being an ingrained part of his traditional work ethic, he habitually keeps a close eye on his wristwatch. But the timekeeping mechanism he watches even closer during his commutes to and from work is the huge courthouse clock in the center of town, not far from his jewelry store. 

Courthouse-Clock-SeptMaking sure the decades-old clock is running on time is a shared interest Jim has with other residents of Mocksville, North Carolina. Built in 1909, the clock for most of its public life has functioned well with some routine and some major fixes along the way. But a short time after the courthouse clock underwent a major fix in 1989 ($2,300 in repairs) it stopped working and stayed broken for about 24 years.

“People always talked about it,” says Jim. “And, the editor of the local newspaper was constantly writing editorials in his newspaper [Davie County Enterprise Record] about the broken clock and how the County Commissioner should do something about it. One day last year I got sick of reading about it and hearing about it and decided to fix it.”

A watchmaker since 1956, Jim opened Davie Jewelers in 1960. Until his recent retirement most of those years involved working at the jeweler’s bench fixing watches. But fixing the clock was hardly a matter of working on a bigger timepiece, according to Jim.

His experience as a watchmaker helped some during the many attempts at fixing the courthouse clock, but his grasp on the basics of mechanics was the key to determining what needed to be repaired as part of a trial-and-error process leading up to the final fix.

“The basics of mechanics are simple,” says Jim. “You’ve got gears, levers and motors. If one of those doesn’t work, none of them work.”

And with that mind-set locked in his head Jim sought out the County Manager last January to volunteer his time and expertise to fix the courthouse clock. Like most pursuits in tracking down a decision maker in city government Jim had to knock on a few doors until he met with the County Commissioner, who then held a meeting with other Davie County officials.

In February Jim was given the green light, starting his clock repair odyssey that would take roughly 80 actual work hours to complete over the span of about one year. Being a watchmaker and gear-head, Jim had always dreamed of a chance to see the huge courthouse clock’s inner workings up close. Unfortunately, such an opportunity came late in his life. With a February birthday, Jim turned 78 last year when the project began. Reaching the top of the courthouse clock tower was no easy task, with a small number of steps leading to a series of connecting wood and wrought iron ladders.  

To make matters even more challenging, the project started in mid-winter with ice on the courthouse roof, and ran through March, making it challenging to do external inspections of the clock. Jim limited his trips to outside inspections until he first got a handle on the clock’s inner workings.

Jim’s first task was removing the clock’s motor. Roughly the size of a sewing machine motor, Jim took the old electric clock motor home to determine if it required routine or some special maintenance. He cleaned and oiled it and returned the old motor to running condition, then reinstalled it. The reconditioned motor moved the large hands on the courthouse clock’s four approximately 3’ x 3’ faces, but only for a short time, making this fix one of many wait-and-see trial-and-error repairs. The clock wasn’t keeping good time and Jim had to figure out the next fix.

Jim-McBride-SeptWith an unsalvageable old electric clock motor, Jim was faced with the seemingly daunting task of replacing an old clock motor. For a man who considers computers “boring,” Jim asked a tech-savvy neighbor to find a substitute motor online. And, much to his surprise, a replacement motor was found.

When the new motor arrived Jim installed it at his first schedule opening. Delighted the hands were moving, his excitement over the old clock’s new motor was short-lived. “I checked the clock routinely and found it wasn’t keeping accurate time again,” says Jim. “Something was keeping the clock’s hands from moving around the dial.”

With little information to go on, Jim found out about a video that was made in the late 1980s when the courthouse clock received its last major repair job. Jim watched the video intently to learn the single piece of information that was the key to fixing the clock: the RPM (rotations per minute) setting for the speed of the output shaft. The repairman interviewed in the video stated that speed setting was 2 RPMs.

Once again, he climbed up the tower to try another fix. Again, Jim discovered that fix was not a magic bullet. Undeterred, Jim was tinkering around the clock one day and took a closer inspection of the outside of the clock. On one of the four faces the hands dragged by the 11 hour marker. Jim and other helpers actually removed pieces from the clock face to cure the dragging problem. But again, that fix didn’t work.

Previous work got Jim thinking about the four shafts leading from the motor. Upon further inspection he discovered one shaft was the problem. And, after installing a new clock shaft Jim crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

“I’d walk and drive by the clock as often as I could,” says Jim. “At that time it was keeping time and I knew we’d finally fixed it. Weeks later, it was still good. That shaft was the final fix that did it.”

Jim estimated 80 hours of his time were donated. And, the actual cash outlays from the township to fix the clock totaled about $500, $200 of that in the new clock motor alone. Like many jewelers, Jim is active in the community, volunteering his time with many organizations from the YMCA to the Rotary Club. Jim viewed the year-long effort a natural extension of his store’s community outreach efforts.

“Giving back to the community takes many forms,” says Jim. “This one required more time, rolling up my sleeves, and climbing those courthouse clock tower ladders time and time again until I finally got it right.”

The courthouse clock is keeping time and Mocksville residents are happy. “I hear from people all the time,” says Jim. “People pop their heads in the store or thank me at the bank or grocery store. I’m just glad to give a little something back to a town and a people that have done so much for me and my family.”