Clock repair is becoming a dying trade

OKEECHOBEE — We live in a world where most of the things we use are consumable and disposable, and some trades are no longer as in-demand as they once were. In years gone by, shoes weren’t just tossed in the trash when they were worn out. They were taken to a cobbler to be re-soled. For many years, televisions were repaired at repair shops, and clocks were cared for lovingly by horologists, and these are just a few examples.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Bill Rice works on a clock in his workshop. He told his wife he just couldn’t sit in a chair all day long, and he was going back to work.

Although there are still people who can repair these things, they are few and far between. The items are becoming easier and cheaper to replace, and the people who have their items repaired now usually do it because they value their belonging for some reason and want to keep that particular one rather than replace it. Because fewer and fewer people seek out the services, fewer people go into the fields of study and many of them are becoming lost arts.

Bill Rice is a horologist, or a clock repairman. He went into the trade in 1999 after he closed down his construction business. He had already been dabbling with clocks before that, he said, but he didn’t officially go into business until he purchased Consolidated Time Services. His wife, Mary, said all their friends thought they were nuts, and told them they would never be able to succeed with a clock business, but it did really well, she said.

They were the largest clock company in northern Indiana. There was one down south in Indianapolis about the same size, but nothing even close to their size near them. Their building was about 2,000 square feet. They moved three times while they had the business, but they were in that last spot about 15 years.

They were a full-service clock shop. They sold clocks, repaired clocks, barometers, time clocks and music boxes. That’s why they were called “Consolidated,” they explained.

Mr. Rice retired when he turned 62 and sold the business to his wife for $1 because he could only make $14,500, but then a couple years later, they decided to just go ahead and sell it. They bought a motor home and moved to Okeechobee in 2013 and started out at the Buckhead Ridge Marina before buying a home. It ended up being too small, so they bought a bigger place, and before long, he told his wife, “I just can’t sit here in this chair all day. I’m gonna go back in the clock business.”

When they first started, it was pretty slow, but then all of a sudden, it picked up and “BOOM!” He said. “It took off.” It has been doing pretty well since. He let all his machinery go when he sold his business, so he doesn’t do a whole lot with watches other than change batteries. He does most of his work with clocks. Many of the clocks people bring in are special to the people who bring them to him, he said.

For example, a couple brought a cuckoo clock given to them by their son stationed in Germany. It may not be worth much, but that doesn’t matter. To them, it’s priceless because their son brought it back with him, and the son is gone now.

“You have to treat the clocks like they are special, because people, especially mothers, are very sentimental about them,” said Mrs. Rice. “You have to treat every clock with respect. People bring them in all wrapped up like they are babies sometimes. They highly respect them, and you can’t just be throwing them around.”

Mr. Rice taught himself to repair clocks. He began by tearing apart small appliances when he was a child. “Of course, back then things did not get put back together again,” he laughed. Soon, he learned to put things back together, and progressed to more and more difficult things. He took a lot of classes over the years, too. They are called Suitcase Classes and are sponsored by the National Clock and Watch Association. They also attended a training session every year while they had their business.

Most of their customers bring their clocks to him, but he does go to the homes of customers who have grandfather clocks, and he has been known to pick up a clock on occasion for a customer who doesn’t drive. His customers with grandfather clocks were happy to finally have someone in town who can take care of their clocks.

“Without a clock repairman, what do you do with a grandfather clock? It just sits there,” he said.

When they moved from Indiana, they held an estate sale and sold five grandfather clocks and about 300 mantle clocks, cuckoo clocks and barometers.

“That’s nothing, though,” said Mrs. Rice. “We have friends who have 3,000 to 4,000 clocks in their home, and they fix them themselves. It’s an expensive hobby.”

A friend of theirs recently passed away, and he worked only on wooden clock movements. He was known for it. He took that skill with him.

“Often the knowledge doesn’t get passed on. Usually it’s because there is no one to pass it on to. Clock repair is kind of a dying trade. Young kids just don’t have a desire to do it,” said Mr. Rice.

Mr. Rice repairs clocks in his home and can be reached at 260-456-9042.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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