Gene Galbraith glanced at his phone and pointed across the street to the Caldwell County courthouse clock tower.
“It’s almost time,” he said. “The wind blows the tower back and forth, and it upsets the clock’s equilibrium. So in about”—he looked at one of the many clocks on the wall—“half an hour, we’ve got to go reset it.”
We were standing in the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches in Lockhart, listening to the museum’s antique clocks ticking down the time until 1 p.m. Aside from being the museum’s founder and president, Galbraith maintains the courthouse clock. Every week he climbs 100 feet up the tower to reset it.
Galbraith is a professional horologist, an archaic word that essentially means “maker of clocks and watches.” It’s a select group; there are only about 200 horologists in Texas. They specialize in the repair and maintenance of mechanical timepieces. That means any clock powered by weights and springs, and anything that keeps time with a swinging pendulum.
Since 2008, the museum has displayed a staggering collection of antique clocks, nearly all of which Galbraith has personally repaired. It receives about 1,200 visitors a year, all on Saturdays, the only day it’s open. Admission is free. Donations, as well as payment for repairs by Galbraith and other museum volunteers, keep it open.
“That’s the oldest clock made in America,” Galbraith said, pointing at a polished wooden piece in the corner. “We think the display was made in England, but the rest was put together in Philadelphia in 1710.”
We stopped at another, in the back. The clock was the size of a refrigerator; unlike the last one, its innards are totally exposed, surrounded by a metal frame. Behind it, a pendulum swung back and forth. It looked like a set of gears imprisoned in an iron cage.
I pointed this out to Galbraith. He laughed. “That’s because it’s a cage clock. This one used to be in a tower in some church or public building in London. The Germans bombed the building in 1941, during the Blitz. Someone pulled the clock out of the rubble and it somehow ended up with an antique dealer in New Orleans. We bought it from him.”
We stopped at another. This one was easily 10 feet tall, a polished mahogany chest surrounding the clock’s gears, with a built-in writing desk at its bottom. Above the desk stood a row of carved musicians in 19th century German folk costume flanked by two angels.
“Watch this,” Galbraith said. He did something to the clock and suddenly the musicians started playing a discordant German folk tune. Galbraith winced. “This clock is from the 1850s, from the Black Forest—the music is recorded on pegs in a wooden drum inside the clock. They’re pretty damaged now.” He brightened. “This used to be owned by P.T. Barnum, of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, who used it as a desk.”
He pointed at the angels. “Now, these angels were carved with dresses, as you can see. Barnum was a bit of a colorful character. He had the top halves of their dresses painted with flesh-colored paint so they’d appear topless.”
I looked. They did indeed.
The museum’s clocks have come from estate sales, donations, and antique dealers. Many arrived broken, their frames cracked, their insides rusted, missing gears. Galbraith, with very few exceptions, has fixed them. He’s refinished their wood, mended their insides, machined new parts when replacements couldn’t be found. His workshop is stacked with obscure tools. He has drill bits the size of needles, metal devices to wind clock springs, grinders and reamers and files—and in plastic tubs, the jumbled gears and weights of disemboweled clocks.
“Each of those is a different clock,” Galbraith said, pointing at the tubs. “They’re all just puzzles with different solutions. That’s why we have to make so many of our own parts; many of these clocks come from factories that have been closed for a hundred years. You sometimes need to make up new tools just to work on them.”
At 76, with his thick white hair and lined face, Galbraith looks like an old tinkerer from a Brothers Grimm story. He started working on clocks late in life. He studied music at the University of Texas, and worked variously as a music teacher and choral conductor. He had never so much as opened a clock until 1995, when suddenly, at the age of 60, he began a five-year apprenticeship. In 2000, he went into business for himself. He’s been a professional horologist ever since.
The story of how Galbraith ended up devoting his life to the care and restoration of antique clocks reads like a fairy tale. It dates back 30 years to a now-vanished neighborhood in Austin, to the day when a simple act of kindness changed Galbraith’s life forever.
At 12:40 p.m., Galbraith pointed to the tower across the street and said, “Takes a while to climb up there. We better go.”
We crossed the street to the courthouse, a three-story limestone structure dominated by a pointed bell tower rising from its center. On the third floor, Galbraith pulled a cord from the ceiling and brought down a rickety folding ladder. We climbed up into a high-ceilinged attic. The air smelled of old wood and insulation. Above our heads hung a giant bell. Galbraith nodded at it. “We want to be up there before that thing goes off, or we’ll be unhappy.”
“Where’s the clock?” I asked.
Galbraith pointed up. A network of ladders climbed 30 feet into the tower. Galbraith started up the first one, my colleague Jen Reel behind him, videotaping. We climbed past the great bell, then up another ladder. Five minutes later, by the time he reached the top of the third ladder, Galbraith was breathing audibly. He pulled himself onto the narrow landing, unlocked a door and stepped through it. We followed.
Inside was a tiny room, most of which was occupied by a giant metal frame filled with slowly turning cogs. A pendulum kept time in back. Galbraith patted the clock affectionately.
“Back when this clock was first built,” he said, “someone would have to come up here regularly and wind it by hand.” He pointed to a black box on the side of the clock. “Now we have an electric motor.”
He looked at a kitchen clock hung on the wall. “We’ll have to wait till the bell goes off at one, then we can reset it.”
We waited. The clock showed a minute past one when the bell rang beneath us. The tower shook. Galbraith reached into the tower clock’s frame with a long metal key and twisted one of the cogs, turning the hands on the clock face to the correct time.
And suddenly, just like that, he began to talk about his life.
Back in the 1980s, Galbraith lived with his wife Luella off West 7th Street, near downtown Austin. She was a men’s hairstylist; he was a music teacher for the Austin Independent School District and director of the Austin Civic Chorus. In the evenings, they liked to walk around the neighborhood. There was one house they always passed, a dilapidated Victorian structure, overgrown with weeds and vines.
“Imagine your stereotypical haunted house,” Galbraith said. “The place was collapsing. At first we thought it was deserted. But every now and then we’d see a light on in the top of the house. Sometimes there would be an old lady out front, picking up sticks.”
The Galbraiths spent a lot of time talking about the old lady and her decomposing house. Who was she? How had things gotten to that state?
Then one day, for reasons he still can’t explain, Galbraith walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. The old woman peeked her head out and told him to get lost.
Galbraith was discouraged, but he didn’t give up. He went home and told Luella about it. The two went back. They rang the doorbell.
The old woman opened the door again. She demanded to know what they wanted. Luella said they were neighbors; they just wanted to visit. The old woman thought about this, then grudgingly told them to come around the back.
So the Galbraiths clawed through the overgrown jungle in front of the house and down a stone walkway to the back. Cats scuttled and hissed at them as they walked up the rotting stairs to the elevated back porch. They knocked on the door.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. The woman opened the door and spoke to them pleasantly, in a cultured voice. “My goodness,” she said, “you folks are the first people to come see me in over 20 years!”
Her name was Hardcastle. She had lived in the house her entire life. After her husband had died years before, she had stopped taking care of it. The house had become a creepy museum of her life; great piles of mingled treasure and junk filled every corner.
“It was like a time capsule from the 1920s inside,” Galbraith said. “She hadn’t touched anything. There were all these pictures on the wall of her as a young flapper. Her husband had been a Mason, and she still had his clothes laid out, just like he was going to come put them on tomorrow.”
The house was falling apart. The roof leaked when it rained. The front porch was rotting. Galbraith offered to help her fix it. His father had been a carpenter, and he liked working with his hands.
“She said she couldn’t pay me,” Galbraith said, “and I said, ‘That’s fine. We’re neighbors.’”
He shrugged. “I mean, she didn’t have anyone else.”
Part of Galbraith’s helpfulness was doubtless pure compassion. But there was more to it than that. Galbraith seems to thrive from a need to tinker with his environment, to make broken things work again. He restored her porch, fixed her back steps, plugged the leaks in her roof. They became friends. One day Mrs. Hardcastle took him aside and said, “Look, you know I can’t pay you. But I have this house full of stuff. Is there anything you want?”
Well, Galbraith said, maybe. He started looking around the house. In the attic of the attached garage, laid face down across the joists above a colossal pile of boxes, Galbraith found a clock. It was in bad shape. Years of dirt and water damage had obscured the finish. Wasps crawled over the face.
Galbraith wasn’t fazed. He had spent time restoring antique furniture, and he knew that what a piece looked like before you started work was no indication of how it might look after. He tried climbing a stack of boxes to get it down, but the clock was much too heavy. It took him two days to get it down to show to Mrs. Hardcastle.
The clock, it turned out, was called the Ansonia General Regulator. It had stood at the State National Bank in downtown Austin until that bank folded during the Great Depression. Mrs. Hardcastle’s father, a man with the redoubtable name of Stonewall Jackson von Koenneritz, had been the bank’s head cashier. When it closed, von Koenneritz took the clock home and stuck it in the attic. Whether he was, strictly speaking, allowed to do this, or whether he simply liberated it, has since been lost to history. Either way, no one had touched the clock in 50 years.
Galbraith took the clock home and set about fixing it. He didn’t know anything about clock repair, but he was good at carpentry. He restored the clock’s woodwork and took it to a horologist to have the gears repaired. He set the clock up in his house. Sometimes at night he would sit and watch the pendulum go back and forth. It seemed to him, he told me, that a dead clock was something like a musical score awaiting a conductor. Restore the clock, wind the crank, and suddenly time comes to life.
In 1983, Mrs. Hardcastle died. Her house was condemned and bulldozed. Soon, the entire neighborhood would be flattened to make way for a new freeway. But her treasures survived—she left everything to the Galbraiths. When they retired in the early ’90s, they used her collection to open an antique shop. Galbraith began to collect clocks. As he had with the Ansonia General Regulator, he would restore the outside, turning the mechanical work over to professionals.
Then one day his horologist friend said to him, “Gene, instead of paying me to fix your clocks for you, why don’t you just learn to do it yourself? I’ll take you on as an apprentice, $8 an hour.”
Instead of saying, as most people would, “No, I bring these clocks to you precisely so I won’t have to fix them myself,” Galbraith agreed. He spent five years learning to open clocks and decode their mysteries. He joined the Central Texas chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and from 2007 to 2009 served as president.
One day in 2005 he got a call from one of Caldwell County’s commissioners in Lockhart. The courthouse tower clock was broken. Could Galbraith come take a look?
The clock had been built in Connecticut in 1917 and shipped to Lockhart. For a while, the county had employed a maintenance man to take care of it. But those days were long gone, and for a long time people without training in clock repair were working on the clock. This system hadn’t worked out too well. The clock hadn’t run in three years.
Galbraith agreed to look at it, half out of curiosity.
“I had never done anything like it,” he said, “but he didn’t have anyone else, so I said sure. I climbed up to right where we are now. The clock was in a bad state—people who didn’t know what they were doing had tried adjustments and just made it worse. It was dead in the water.”
Galbraith told the commissioner his rate was $40 an hour.
“You were that sure you could do it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. He smiled. “I wasn’t sure at all. But I wasn’t going to tell him that.”
It took him six hours. When he was done, the town looked up and watched as the hands moved for the first time in years.
As Galbraith talked about clocks, there was a strange light in his eyes, and I got the sense that to him clocks are more than just machinery, more than just antique art. Galbraith delights in puns and Zen-like koans about time. There are little laminated cards throughout the museum with sayings like “We can kill it/But we can’t destroy it” and “We can save it/But there’s never any more of it.” A reproduction of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, with its melting clocks connoting fluid time, hangs over the cash register.
There is a beautiful absurdity to the museum’s antique clocks. They are dense, weighty structures full of moving parts, an attempt to capture the ephemeral in brute metal. As I climbed out of the tower, it was impossible not to think of the age of these clocks as long past. For all practical purposes, in the museum time is kept by the battery-powered kitchen clock on the wall, or by Galbraith’s iPhone.
During my time in Lockhart, I could never get Galbraith to satisfactorily answer what makes him do this work, what about clocks drives his interest. There are 30 courthouse tower clocks in Texas; only a handful work. As part of the museum’s Tower Clock Initiative, Galbraith wants to restore the rest. I wanted to understand why it was important to him that those courthouse bells toll again.
About a week after our conversation in Lockhart, Galbraith sent me an email:
“So, I am surrounded by people who are obsessed with time. I take comfort in being cloistered in the ever-constant presence of time in motion. I am forever consumed with ‘saving time,’ i.e., bringing timepieces back to life. It’s more like ‘resurrecting’ time than saving it. Saving time is more like the process of maintenance. A timepiece that is ‘dead’ is a bit more complicated. When did it die? Why did it die? Can it be resuscitated?”
Sometimes, when he is alone in the museum, he sings in his deep baritone, letting the tick of the cage clock in the back serve as his metronome. As a choral conductor, Galbraith wrote me, he spent much of his life looking at musical scores. A score, he wrote, “is dead until it is brought to life through the medium for which it was created—instrumental, vocal, or both.”
He has looked at these scores, which code time like frozen clocks, and heard their music sing in his head.
“But nothing sounds until I give the downbeat,” he finishes. “The orchestra will not play until there is a downbeat. The choir will not sing until there is a downbeat. The clock will not run until I start the pendulum.”