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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tick, Tock. . . The John Brown Clock


by H. Scott Wolfe

There are some inherent advantages to being elderly...particularly to individuals such as myself, numbered among the generation born during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. I feel a great affinity toward Old Rutherford, the pride of Fremont, Ohio. We have so many similarities. For example: neither of us ever owned a cell phone; both of us would be intellectually stymied if asked to operate a DVD player; and neither of us ever dispatched a “tweet” or created a Facebook page detailing the momentous intelligence of what we had for breakfast last week Tuesday. Ah yes, to be tottering above the precipice of senility can be monstrously cool. So many splendid memories rattle within my vacuous cranium.

For instance, take the humble used book store. In a prior posting, I bemoaned the continuing disappearance of those private literary institutions...in many cases, the victims of corporate, tech-based retailers such as amazon.com or abebooks. A visit to an independent bookseller was a sensory experience...not simply the sight of ink upon a page, but the smell, the tactile feel of long-sought-after volumes. And how I relished the conversation with the booksellers! Twas an education in itself.

I used to haunt a small shop in my own town, operated by an eccentric purveyor who had once been in charge of the rare book department of a metropolitan department store. Many a volume of John Brown biography or antebellum American lore were deftly plucked from his shelves by this rabid seeker of historical truth.

Upon entering his tiny brick building, one was besieged with classical notes...as a Beethoven symphony or Haydn string quartet blared from a questionable 8-track tape player. Seated at his desk, peering over stacks of books like a soldier hidden in some World War I literary trench, was the proprietor. An occasional puff of smoke, emanating from an ever-present generic cigarette, gave the distinct impression that his military position was literally under fire.

But then the talk commenced. Whether it be the satirical novels of Sinclair Lewis or the origins of the Compromise of 1850, the conversation could literally last for hours. And then I would be regaled with his recollections...stories of hanging out with the poet Carl Sandburg...of attending New York cocktail parties with the writer Somerset Maugham. . .and of encounters with the actress Tallulah Bankhead, who sought him out whenever performing in his city.

As I sit writing these lines, it would be within my power to pause and place an online order for a copy of William Elsey Connelly’s 1900 life of John Brown. Such convenience! But again, it’s so great to be numbered among the elderly.


And then we have the example of the small, “Mom and Pop” antique stores. How yours truly and his consort used to navigate between these fascinating storehouses of Americana! From New England to New Orleans, there were few we missed. They provided much the same sensory experience found among the booksellers. And also the conversation . . . whether it be upon the characteristics of pressed glass produced in Sandwich, Massachusetts or the mechanism of an Edison phonograph. But these establishments, too, are becoming extinct...slain by sundry factors ranging from online ebay auctions to the ridiculously inflated appraisals spewed from such television “entertainment” as the Antiques Roadshow.

Weekends were often devoted to ranging among the quaint towns lining the upper Mississippi River, searching for hidden treasures. The bitter half would perhaps dedicate her quest to some 1920s flapper’s cloche hat...and myself, with a more eclectic taste, might be seeking a tin of “Poultry Louse Powder” produced by the Dr. David Roberts Veterinary Company of Waukesha, Wisconsin. One never could predict the outcome.

I did find the Louse Powder.
So it was when we entered a small shop in that Iowa river town. The interior was dark and gloomy...the shelves covered by a thick layer of dust. In fact, if such dirt were valuable, it could have been bagged and sold by the pound. But as our eyes adjusted, the stock in trade became fully visible. Glassware. . .china. . . furniture...all haphazardly arranged as if by a declaration of a committee.

And then I saw it. It stood near the rear of the store...surrounded by a myriad of those kerosene lamps so indigenous to that habitat. It was an early wooden shelf clock of a pattern, I later learned, called “Pillar and Scroll.” I had little interest in clocks. But I did have an interest in what was mounted behind its glass door. It was a 19th century, hand-colored lithograph of a bearded gentleman, standing solidly with his hands in his pockets. It was the image of John Brown, “Leader of the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection.”

The John Brown Lithograph
The owner, noting my intense stare, soon had me in his clutches. He commenced a horological lecture...about the clock’s walnut case...about its brass pendulum...about its leaden counterweights. He discussed the age of the clock, and that its works were made of wood. He revealed the label within, which stated: “Patent Clocks, Invented by Eli Terry and Manufactured for George Mitchell, Bristol, Conn., and Sold by Him, Wholesale and Retail. Warranted If Well Used.”

(I was later to learn that Terry (1772-1852), through his patents, was instrumental in the introduction of mass production to clockmaking...along with one of his assistants, a man named Seth Thomas. And Mitchell (1774-1852) was an entrepreneur, whose money and business savvy “backed” a number of early clockmakers.)

But the lecture flew over my head...much like those dealing with physics and genetics back in my collegiate days. My eyes were on John Brown. His image was obviously based upon the Lawrence view of the Old Man taken in New York in May of 1858. He was flanked by a red chair and a table, both draped with blue cloth. On the wall behind, was a map of Kansas...and another rolled map leans against the table. In the lower right corner was the facsimile signature: “Your Friend, John Brown.”

Amidst the dimness of the shop, I strained to see the names of the lithographers...and saw printed at the base of the image: “E.B. & E.C. Kellogg, 87 Fulton St., N.Y., 245 Main St., Hartford, Conn.” (I was to learn that these gentlemen were Edmund Burke Kellogg (1809-1872) and his brother, Elijah Chapman Kellogg (1811-1881). Along with two other siblings, the Kellogg firm published a wealth of popular lithographs for an avid public...exceeded in numbers only by their New York rivals, Nathaniel Currier & James M. Ives.)

Interior of the John Brown Clock
A glance at my beloved companion...no words...were adequate for her to begin fumbling for the checkbook. Following years of extensive training and discipline, she had already learned whose image lay behind the glass door. And we were soon descending the river...with a large wooden clock, 35 inches high, 16 inches wide, whose ultimate resting place upon our household’s cluttered shelves remained a subject of intense family debate.


Such are the experiences of the elderly. Perhaps, in the future, I will provide more. But right now, I must conduct a search. . . I have misplaced my AARP membership card. -- H. Scott Wolfe