Guest Column: It’s all about time

By Robert D. Restuccia

Why should a Rockford citizen have any interest in horology? Horology is the study of time-keeping instruments, that is, clocks and watches.

Rockford was a town with a rich industrial history, so railroads served this area, moving goods and passengers. These railroads included the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, the Union Pacific, the Canadian National and the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern Railroad, among others. Accurate time keeping was essential to the railroads.

A century ago, there were no electric, quartz, tuning fork or atomic clocks or watches. The country ran on fine mechanical watches that were powered by coiled springs. These devices could be adjusted to run within an accuracy of 10 seconds or less per month. Of course, they required frequent servicing to achieve this degree of accuracy. So, there were many watchmakers, watch repairmen and jewelers in Rockford at that time. Do you remember the large street clock outside of Anger’s Jewelers and the clock tower of the National Lock Co.? In fact, Rockford had a watch factory from 1873-1915, and it produced more than 1 million watches. The building still stands on South Madison Street. Their better watches were preferred by the railroad industry for their engineers and conductors.

The Rockford Watch Co. was established in 1874 by H.P. Holland, Israel Sovereign and George Troxell with $150,000 in capital. Other prominent individuals involved in the company included Levi Rhodes, Henry Price, George Clarke, A.D. Forbes, Thomas Butterworth, and S.P. Crawford. The factory was completed in 1876, and shortly thereafter, the first watches were produced. The officers decided to focus the production on a small output of high-quality watches rather than to produce large numbers of average-quality watches. To emphasize this point, during the 39 years of Rockford watch production, the American Waltham Watch Co. produced more than 19 million watches, the Elgin Watch Co. produced 18 million watches, and the Illinois Watch Co. produced 2.6 million watches. They were all established before Rockford’s Watch Co.

At the other extreme was the Freeport Watch Co., founded in 1874, when Rock Island did not prove to be a viable location. Unfortunately, the factory built in Freeport burned down in October 1875, destroying 300 brass watch movements. About 20 nickel movements were salvaged from the fire and subsequently completed. They are very rare and sell for $40,000 and more, when one comes on the market. Some of the finest Rockford watches will fetch more than $10,000, especially if found in original solid gold cases. However, more common Rockford watches of average quality may sell today at $150 to $500. There are still many of these watches sequestered in dresser drawers or other safe hiding places throughout this region. However, many may not run well or at all, since they have not been maintained for decades. These watches would need to be overhauled, cleaned and oiled before they will function and keep good time. An estimate of such repair work would be $100-$200. It could be more if parts must be replaced.

If you have interest in old timepieces (mechanical clocks and watches), whether they be of American or European manufacture and want to learn about your time piece, there are many excellent references in the Rockford Public Library. You can also bring your item to a Northern Illinois Watch and Clock Club meeting on the fourth Tuesday of each month (formerly Ken-Rock Community Center) at 3218 11th St. in Rockford between 6 and 8 p.m. The club officers will provide free appraisal for watches and clocks. Some of the club members are watch and clock repairmen.

Robert D. Restuccia is a resident of Rockford and president of the Northern Illinois Watch and Clock Club.

From the March 21-27, 2012, issue

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