On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for June is an original 1872 clock face from the clock tower of the McDonough County Courthouse in Macomb.
Donated to the museum in 2011 by Ronald Clarkson, the wooden circular clock face measures a little over three feet in diameter and has affixed metal Roman numerals. In 1978 the courthouse underwent extensive restoration, and Clarkson, who was supervisor of the restoration work crew, saved the clock face when it was removed during restoration of the building.
A series of events led up to the courthouse restoration. In 1976, the McDonough County Board received funding from the Federal Program CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), and from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. The purpose of the CETA funding was to provide skill training and employment for the unemployed. It was also specified that the funds be used for the restoration of a historic structure. At that time, both the interior and exterior of the 106-year-old courthouse needed restoration. The exterior had been painted yellow and gray, and the outside was aged and suffering from deterioration.
After the funding was secured, restoration work began in March 1978, under the direction of Clarkson, and continued for the next 12 months. Clarkson hired and supervised a crew of 19 workers that literally cleaned the building from top to bottom. Clarkson recalls, “Every inch of that building inside and out was touched by humans.” The interior black walnut and oak woodwork was refinished, walls were repainted and the exterior brick was stripped of paint. The building was returned to its original appearance.
At this time, Clarkson oversaw the removal of the four original faded, damaged clock faces, and members of the work crew created exact reproductions of the original 1872 clock faces. The reproduction clock faces are still part of the courthouse to this day.
Clarkson remembers that at first when they were removing the clock faces, the crew planned to throw them away, but realizing their historical importance, the crew reconsidered their decision. Of the four clock faces, one was so damaged by weather that it was impossible to save, and it was discarded. Another clock face Clarkson kept. The third clock face Clarkson gave to Robert Ausbury, the McDonough County Board Chairman from 1970-1982, and one of the strong supporters behind the courthouse restoration project. Ryan Bonser, a member of the crew who worked extensively with the clock, kept the fourth clock face. Bonser, a Macomb resident, recalls that the clock faces were in rough condition, damaged by weather and with peeling paint. John Latko, another member of the work crew and Macomb resident, also assisted with the clock restoration.
After the restoration, the courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, Clarkson moved away from Macomb and took the clock face he had saved with him. For the past 33 years, he has displayed the clock face in his Chicago-area home. In 2011, he decided to donate the clock face to the museum, feeling that Macomb was the proper place for it. Clarkson felt that returning the clock face to its hometown would give area residents an opportunity to see it up close and enjoy its historic significance.
The current courthouse in Macomb is actually the third one built for McDonough County. There was a small courthouse built in 1831. A new, larger courthouse was constructed in 1855, which began to deteriorate, creating a need for a third courthouse.
Completed in 1872, the present courthouse dominates the center of Macomb’s square and the large clock tower of the courthouse makes it one of the most recognizable buildings of Macomb’s skyline. The clock faces punctuate the four sides of the clock tower at the top of the building. When installed in 1872, the backgrounds of each of the clock faces were stained black and the numerals and hands of the clock were painted white to stand out from the background in stark contrast. With the white numbers and hands against the black face, the time could be seen from a great distance. Folks coming to town would have been able to see the courthouse clock tower from a long way off, as it was the tallest structure around. It still serves as a focal point and symbol of the center of the city and the county.
Almost every visitor would surely have marked the time by checking the courthouse clock; the clock would have served as the official timepiece to keep the community on time. There are countless courthouse clocks in the center of towns all over America – it is a symbol of municipal pride – a public building symbolizing law and order and justice. Usually the tallest building in a community, the clock tower on a courthouse harkens back to a time when not everyone owned their own watch, and a public clock was important for residents of a town.
Macomb and McDonough County are lucky to have a beautifully restored courthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This original 1872 clock face will be a reminder of the rich history of the building and its continuing significance for all of us in McDonough County. Now 140 years old, the clock face will have a new life preserved at the museum, educating generations to come about the rich heritage of this area. On the face of the clock, the black stain has all but vanished, and the numbers have faded to gray, but it still survives to serve as a symbol and to tell part of the story of the history of the McDonough County Courthouse.
From an essay by Heather Munro.