Monday, August 11, 2014

Clock Marks Passage of Time

Historic Courthouse Clock Marks Passage of Time in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

original clock faceEvery little parish seat over the years has had its iconic courthouse, some more elaborate than others but all as fancy as times could afford, and most were topped with a tower or cupola boasting an enormous, often multi-faced clock. The deep tones, the carillon calls, the clanging and banging of these clocks marked the passage of the minutes of their lives for downtown residents, chiming the hours in anticipation of happy occasions and solemn events alike. One haunted historic courthouse clock in Texas tolled away the hours left of life for a condemned prisoner in the nearby jail; just prior to his execution he cursed the clock, which never again kept accurate time and was repeatedly stuck by lightning.

West Feliciana Parish’s courthouse was designed in 1903 by architect Andrew J. Bryan to replace an earlier structure damaged during the Civil War (and an even earlier one in use beginning in 1824). Its National Register of Historic Places inventory listing calls its architectural style “attenuated Georgian Revival, composite quadrastiple portico on each fa├žade, central Baroque dormer,” whatever that means, and it was considered such a letdown from the classical elegance of its predecessor that its cornerstone bore no names of founding fathers. It has recently been augmented by a more modern annex, but still houses offices for the parish gas district and public defender downstairs. The wood-paneled courtroom upstairs is still in use for criminal trials and overflow civil matters, and every hour on the hour, attorneys and witnesses must pause as the clock above their heads deafeningly sounds the time, giving everyone involved a slight breather from the oft-heated proceedings.

Working on courthouse clock - 2014This brief respite from weighty judicial matters must give one of the 20th Judicial District’s judges special pleasure, for beneath the flowing black robes of Judge George Haliburton Ware, Jr., beats the heart of a dedicated metal worker/machinist with great admiration for the intricate workings of old clocks, fans and other mechanical wonders. Ware is the father of the metal working program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that turns out trained machinists through the prison’s re-entry program. And it is thanks to him and a couple of others who share his passion, Dr. Walker McVea and Charles Broussard, that the old courthouse clock works at all. It didn’t for awhile.

Its first restoration came in 2008, after the parish police jury voted to allocate $50,000 to hire clock restoration specialist David Seay to dismantle it, move it to his workshop in Kansas, machine some parts of the internal mechanism that had to be replaced, and return it in working order, plus replacing with metal ones the old wooden numerals in each of the four clock faces atop the courthouse.

Repairing the clockCharles Broussard calls David Seay a true perfectionist who absolutely loves what he does, and so it was natural that he would be called in again to put the courthouse clock back in working order after lack of regular maintenance caused it to stop working a few years ago. Says Broussard, “It’s nothing but a big old grandfather clock with four faces, but the motorized control we put in for the weights was hit by a surge and the sensitive gears hadn’t been properly oiled on a regular basis, and a binding in the mechanism was preventing it from striking.” Broussard has worked with parish employee Allen Dwyer to assure proper future maintenance of what he calls “a true treasure. Many of Louisiana’s courthouses have clocks, but I’d say 99.9% of them don’t work. We have a true marvel here. If we’re going to call ourselves historical, let’s do it all the way.”
Longtime St. Francisville mayor Billy D’Aquilla also considers the working clock a true icon, with great historic value to the town and its preservation-minded residents. Says attorney Bob Butler, whose law office is directly across the street from the courthouse, “The old clock is historical and unique. And it’s LOUD!”

Clock worksThe restoration of the old courthouse clock will be celebrated at 6 p.m. during the popular event called Polos and Pearls, highlight of August in St. Francisville, designed to add some sizzle to summer shopping and entice customers downtown the evening of August 23, beginning at 5 p.m. All the interesting little shops and galleries offer lots of extras---refreshments from local restaurants and food vendors, music or other entertainment, and plenty of bargains, making shopping after dark just plain fun, with trolley transportation making it a breeze to get around.

As the advent of autumn brings cooler temperatures, St. Francisville offers plenty of special events. The Hummingbird Festival on September 13 provides the opportunity to observe these amazing little birds up close as professional wildlife biologists band and weigh them before releasing them to continue their fall migration patterns.

Clock parts courthouse 2014October is crowded with events every weekend. The Angola Prison Rodeo draws some 10,000 eager spectators every Sunday in October, and the Myrtles Halloween Experience scares the pants off visitors every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and October 31 from 6 to 9 in a historic plantation house calling itself the most haunted in America. October 10 and 11 marks the 26th annual Southern Garden Symposium, a series of entertainments, workshops, tours, demonstrations and lectures by prestigious speakers in this the land of glorious antebellum gardens. The last weekend of October, the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival is a gathering of dozens of artists and crafts persons demonstrating and selling their wares in downtown Parker Park.

November 15 the Louisiana Vets Fest in the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park supports and celebrates veterans of all wars with children’s activities, military displays, hotly contested cook-off contests providing plenty of good food, and exciting live music including Marcia Ball and Jimmie Vaughn. And December brings the well-established and well-loved small-town holiday celebration called Christmas in the Country, with shop open houses, strolling musicians, lively parade, and house tours benefitting the new parish library.

New clock faceLocated on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations some weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and restaurants serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register historic district; there are also motel accommodations for bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum and tourist information center at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224 or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

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The above article, including photographs (by Charles Broussard), are available for reprint.  High resolutions photographs are available upon request, email here.