For us the bell tolls

Ethan Gray

Building keeper Dennis Harter stands with the original clock mechanism high in the inner workings of the Lawrence County Courthouse. (Photos by Ethan Gray)

The original bell lives suspended in the clock tower.

Lawrence County Courthouse once again ticks, tocks and rings every hour
The Lawrence County Courthouse clock in Mt. Vernon tolls again after a repair effort on Thursday, Jan. 25. The clock, which was struck by lightning and left dormant for months, will once again be able to sound its bell every hour.
The clock itself ceased working in August of last year when it was hit by a lightning strike, according to Dennis Harter, groundskeeper for Lawrence County. The bell, though, had stopped working nearly 20 years ago, with the city pushing off the repairs until now.
“It would have cost about $2,000 if we would have put it back on without the bell like last time,” Harter said. “It ran without a bell since 2005 because they didn’t think they could afford it, the budget’s good now so they have the money to make it happen.”
When the lightning struck the clock, it damaged its automatic system. The system has been replaced multiple times since the 1901 original, which was fully analog. After the analog system needed repair, the mechanism was replaced by an automatic controller, the third iteration of which was installed on Thursday. Harter estimates that the systems installed have a serviceable life of about 20 years, depending on the frequency of lightning strikes.

In addition to a new clock system, the bell needed a new striker, as the last one was no longer operable, said Harter. The new system is pretty simple, all of it is controlled by one small box mounted on the wall. The box sends a signal to four electrical motors that turn the hands of the clock. The striker is fully electric too and is also controlled from the same point.
The original mechanism still lies in the attic of the court house, though many of its parts have been stripped or lost. Harter recounted a tale of one piece of the clock that still lies in the courthouse: the weight. The weight that was used to operate the clock before the digital system was at one point hung from a wire. Harter explained that in the past, the weight became disconnected, crashing through every floor of the courthouse and ending up on the bottom.
“You can still see the indentions in the floor,” said Harter.
The mechanism lies inside a room in the attic, which is surprisingly cleaner than most, though graffiti still marks the inside. The room was constructed out of the very same crate the clock was shipped in, hoping to provide a more sanitary home while protecting the inner workings.
“It gets really dirty in these rooms up here,” commented Harter.
Original brass bell remains
One part of the system that’s staying is the original brass bell. Estimated to weigh over 600 pounds, it is held by nothing more than a simple wood frame suspended over the floor.
Americlock headed the clock repairs on Thursday, being one of the few companies that still operate on historic clock systems. In a repair that cost an estimated $10,000, the bell was rung again at 2 p.m. on Jan. 25.
“It’s nice to hear it,” said Harter.
Harter indicated that one of the biggest reasons the bell had not been fixed to this point was simply because of how much it cost.
“They gave up on the bell part of the clock at that time,” he said. “Except for that 20-year period, the bell has chimed since 1901.”
The clock tower may have been a handy tool back in the day, but now it’s something more, according to Harter.
“I think it’s important, nostalgia-wise,” he said. “Back in 1901, it was important for other reasons; there weren’t as many accurate clocks, so it had a purpose; that purpose now is a little more sentimental.”


Lawrence County Record

312 S. Hickory St.
Mt. Vernon, MO, 65712


Please Login for Premium Content