A getaway with some great times

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Pennsylvania: Visitors can truly stay up to the minute at the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia.

July 16, 2000|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,Sun Staff

COLUMBIA, PA. -- In this small city nestled along the broad Susquehanna River stands the eighth wonder of the world, the Engle Clock.

At least that's how it was advertised when the massive wooden contraption was on the show circuit decades ago. Now the 9-by-11-foot clock occupies a place of honor at the National Watch & Clock Museum, a marvelous collection of some 14,000 timepieces.

Watching the Engle Clock strike the hour is an event, a sort of Victorian "Laugh-In." Forty-eight moving figures pop in and out of openings in three towers, a cast that includes Jesus Christ, Orpheus playing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" on his lute, a skeleton that thumps out the hours with a human thighbone and Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher (who also appears later in the hour.)

Stephen D. Engle's "apostolic clock" was a 20-year project. "During the last year before completion [1877], I had no night or day... " the Pennsylvania horologist wrote. "I shall never rest till my mainspring is broken, barrel burst, pillars knocked loose, ratchet wheel and screw-threads stripped, pivots worn out ... face discolored, hands locked, boxed up and labeled to the Maker for revision and improvement."

His clock and the museum are bringing hundreds of people each week from all over the world to Columbia (pop. 10,465), an old river port that's seen better days. The museum is owned by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, a group of 34,000 horologists -- those who study the art or science of measuring time and making timepieces.

In the 1950s, the group elected a local man, Earl T. Strickler, secretary and editor of the association's bulletin. People began sending him timepieces, which he kept in his home as a private museum for association members.

Eventually, the collection outgrew Strickler's space. The association purchased a Pennsylvania Power & Light building on North Fifth Street and opened a museum to the public in 1977. Since then, the group has doubled the building's size and opened the School of Horology across the street.

Curator Bob Desrochers said he runs very few of the 2,500 pieces on display because, like anything mechanical, clocks and watches wear out. Still, the sounds of ticks, tocks, gongs and bells fill the galleries. In one room, a very realistic mannequin of an 18th-century clockmaker can be heard sanding and sawing away on the cabinet of a tallcase clock.

The museum's self-guided tour moves chronologically, beginning with an excellent overview of how the ancients tracked time. There are also some good interactive exhibits that explain how clocks work, the terminology of the trade and the evolution of all types of timepieces -- stately tallcase clocks, elegant pocket watches and an impressive array of wristwatches.

Desrochers paused in front of an 11-foot-tall clock, made by the French manufacturer E. Farcot for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Atop a pedestal of polished white and tan onyx, a classical figure suspends a star-studded pendulum.

French clockmakers, he explained, have always been very formal. "They incorporate a lot of art, and the movements are very fragile," he said. "The sound of French clocks has a very light ding."

A phonograph clock, made around 1900, is one of the curator's favorites. The precursor to a CD-alarm clock had to be wound the night before and the needle placed over a record to be played at the desired time. "It works very, very well still," Desrochers said.

In the same display case is a small metal contraption called the Tugaslugabed. "You'd clip it to your covers, and when the alarm went off, it would pull off your covers," he said. "I have not tried it. That's not the way I'd like to get up."

Local tastes

The museum has a small snack bar adjacent to the gift shop. For a full meal, though, head to Columbia's ninth wonder of the world, Hinkle's Pharmacy Restaurant, which is a short walk down Columbia's main strip, Locust Street. At this 107-year-old institution, you can get a delicious sandwich, drink and dessert for $3.09.

At 3 p.m. on a weekday, the restaurant was still busy. Four young men with shaved heads and tattooed and pierced body parts sat at the counter, adjacent to an old man dressed like Johnny Cash. An elderly couple sat in a booth, eating dessert and giving a play-by-play on the stream of trucks that rumbled up Locust Street ("Isn't that a shiny one?").

The menu is extensive with standards such as chicken salad and BLTs, as well as some new traditionals such as garden burgers and wraps. Dessert here is a must if for no other reason than it makes economic sense. A slice of delicious Boston cream pie was $1.95, and flavored sodas average about $1.50.

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