Out of habit, as the Elkhart County Courthouse clock struck 11 on a recent morning, Blake Eckelbarger took out his cellphone and compared the time.
The century-and-a-half-old mechanism in the middle of Goshen trailed the timekeeping of his GPS satellite-aided phone by a minute. Thankfully it’s an easy fix, he explained, as he tinkered with the brass-colored gears and pins of the green-painted machine his grandfather and great-grandfather once cared for — a minute fast would mean advancing the hands through 11 hours and 59 minutes to set it right.
Time it takes isn’t the hassle, since that’s only 20 minutes, but the fact that he has to stop and wait for the bell to ring as an hour goes by every 10 seconds. It’s the same story when he has to advance it one hour along with everyone else’s clocks one time a year.
“Now it should be OK for another couple months,” he said, before going into the usual weekly routine of oiling and inspecting the mechanism. It’s a job he’s had since 2000, when he happily took the offer to bring it back into the Eckelbarger family.
Eckelbarger’s great-grandfather, Zena Eckelbarger, took care of the clock from 1923 until his death in 1941. Eckelbarger’s grandfather, Dan Eckelbarger Sr., then held the duty for the next 50 years, into his 80s.
Blake remembers going to work with his grandfather on occasion, but he didn’t really learn how the clock works until he trained for a couple years under Hosea Jump, who held the contract since 1991 and who asked Blake if he wanted the job. He still had to rely on Jump’s expertise for another four or five years whenever an issue needed troubleshooting.
His duties, in addition to the weekly checks, include periodically making sure the clock faces are free of things such as leaves or dead birds, and that the bell and hammer are in good shape. Once a year, he spends a whole day disassembling the works to lubricate the shafts and polish the gears.
Trouble usually comes in the form of the occasional dropped pin or jammed gears, though the cause isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it just stops, though he noted it’s when something breaks that he learns the most.
“That’s when you wonder about a ghost in the machine,” he said. “It can get spooky up here at night.”
His pay, under the contract the county recently renewed for another year, is $2,700. It’s only $200 more than Jump made.
“I’ve never had a raise. I might even be losing money, with inflation,” he said, laughing. “But I’m just happy to keep it in the family. I enjoy doing it (and) and I’m very grateful to the county commissioners for their willingness to keep history alive for future generations to learn about.”
Eckelbarger loves the clock as a piece of city history as much as family history, and as an enormous version of the gizmos around the house he would take apart as a kid to see how they work.
“It’s really cool to me to preserve the history of Goshen and the county and to keep it alive,” he said. “I love machines and machinery. To me, it’s just something that’s really cool, and nothing says ‘machine’ more than a clock works, with all the gears, levers and things. It completely runs by gravity — even if the power in the courthouse goes out, it would still be running.”
It’s also a world apart from his day job as a DJ, under the name Sticky Boots, using cutting-edge technology, mixing with computers and staying current on new music. The clock is a backwards step closer to the analog, reel-to-reel equipment his dad, also a DJ, had used.
“It’s cool to slow down and come back to something this old-school,” Eckelbarger said. “It’s cool to keep my feet in both worlds.”
The clock has gone through a few changes over the years. Dan Eckelbarger invented an automatic winding system so the mechanism wouldn’t have to be wound by hand every single day, and built a small, heated enclosure around it so the lubricant would stop freezing up in winter.
Automatic sensors now turn the clock face lights on, a task once handled mechanically, and the lights themselves have gone from 1200 watts worth of bulbs to compact fluorescents to LEDs. The courthouse itself was renovated in 1905 and the clock tower rebuilt, moved from the south end of the building to the center.
The mechanism is generally accurate within one minute per month, depending on how the weather affects the dinner-plate-sized gears or the pendulum that extends through the floor, whose swing drives the piece that meters out the seconds while producing the distinctive tick-tock sound.
“When I come up here … above the city, and hear the clock ticking, it’s very peaceful. It’s pretty relaxing,” he said.
The piece driven by the pendulum is a rare Denison double three-legged gravity escapement, he added — originally developed for Big Ben in London — which he is the most accurate type of escapement for a tower clock mechanism.
The other half of the apparatus is devoted to ringing the bell at set intervals, a sound the 43-year-old has been familiar with his whole life.
“I grew up in downtown Goshen, so I heard it strike every hour from my bedroom window,” he said. “I’d know grandpa was walking down to the clock.”
The mechanism is a Model 3 striker built by E. Howard & Co., a Boston clockmaker that also made the works in the Wrigley Building in Chicago and the clocks for courts, churches, stations and other public landmarks throughout the country. Eckelbarger estimates fewer than 10 percent of Indiana counties still have original working clocks in their courthouses.
Based on what he saw in an 1890s E. Howard catalog, he figures the mechanism cost the county more than $775 when it was installed in 1870.
“It’s not cheap. It’s one of the top-end models,” he said. “The county clearly wanted this to be a centerpiece and they didn't spare the price.”
It was engineered to last 200 years, he said, and he sees no reason it couldn’t last forever, given enough care.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer,” he said.