destroyed, bell saved
in Jefferson County Courthouse fire
of clock will go on display
at historical society museum
(July 2009) On March 18, 1859, the city of
Madison hired local watchmaker Israel Fowler to build a clock for the
Jefferson County Courthouse for a price of $600. He was to build four
faces and to furnish two years of service as part of the agreement.
For the next century and a half, that clock became the timekeeper for
generations of Madisonians. Periodically, it stopped ticking due to
repair issues, but it always managed to get fixed and again resume its
by Darrel Taylor
3,100-pound bell is lowered
from the top of the fire-damaged
Jefferson County Courthouse on
May 29, more than a week after
the fire. Most people had never seen
the bell, which was made in 1864
and later installed in the belltower.
Once it stopped for more than two weeks when Fowlers
son, William, died without instructing anyone in the proper way to wind
and care for the clock. Fortunately, a Vevay, Ind., clock expert knew
how to do it, perhaps because Fowler had also made the clock for the
Switzerland County, Ind., Courthouse.
On the night of May 20, the clock was completely destroyed in a major
fire at the courthouse. All night long and much of the next day, firefighters
battled huge flames and smoldering ruins.
Jefferson County Historical Society Executive Director Joe Carr and
Historic Madison Inc. Executive Director John Staicer were among the
hundreds of people on the scene of the fire. When it was safe to do
so, the historians crawled through the ruble and managed to salvage
two faces of the historic icon.
We found the faces in the junk pile, said Carr.
One of the faces is being stored at the Historical Society and will
be on display in an exhibit about the courthouse.
Carr said the inner works of the clock, the original pieces made by
Fowler, were actually dismantled and stored in the courthouse basement
in the 1990s. He believed they should still be down there.
by Konnie McCollum
Carr, executive director of
the Jefferson County Historical
Society, poses with a clock face
that was salvaged intact from
the Courthouse fire. He plans to put it
on permanent display at the museum.
I dont know what plans the county has for
the clock, but wed certainly like to see the clockworks saved,
he said. We would be glad to take them if the courthouse doesnt
intend to restore them.
Originally, the clock was operated by weights. One section had a weight
of approximately 400 pounds. It was used to operate the strokes on the
huge bell attached to it. The other weight, approximately 100 pounds,
was used to operate the time. As it was wound, a large crank was applied
and the weights were drawn up into the belfry.
In the 1960s, the original clockworks were replaced with electric units.
In 1864, the current bell that accompanied the clock was cast by the
Buckeye Foundry of Cincinnati and toned to the Letter E,
according to what is actually written on it. Although research is conflicting,
it appears as though in 1859, William Stanley and Thomas McGuire were
contracted to supply the city with a bell. No one was sure why it took
so long to cast and hang the bell, but it may have had something to
do with the American Civil War, which took place at that time.
According to documents on file at the Jefferson County Historical Society
Research Library, the new bell had to be equally as good as the
original bell, and to not weight less than 1,600 pounds of bell metal
of the best quality, independent and exclusive of other yoke, hammer
and other cast and wrought iron fixtures for a price of 35 cents a pound.
photo by Don Ward; above, lower photo by Darrel Taylor
Courthouse bell was made at a
Cincinnati foundry and is now in
storage. Officials are considering
placing the bell on display in the
Courthouse lawn if it is not
returned to the future belltower,
which must be built during the
restoration. The bell has the
foundry name of G.W. Coffin & Co.
on it. The company was the George
Washington Coffin & Co., also
known as the Buckeye Bell Foundry.
The document also states the old bell metal and fixtures
could be used to make the new bell. The old bell had been made by the
West Troy Bell Foundry of Troy, N.Y., and purchased for $742.29 on Nov.
9, 1855. It had apparently been damaged when it fell through the roof
and nearly landed on the firefighters, during a February
Today, the bell sits quietly in a storehouse, waiting to be cleaned
and re-hung. Staicer said the bell appeared to be free of cracks when
he first saw it after the fire, but it was darkened from smoke and soot.
He said his organization is ready to provide Jefferson County Commissioners
with information about special metal conservators when the time comes
to get the bell cleaned.
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