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Expert turns back time with work on vintage clocks

This weekend, those who turn analog clocks back to Standard Time for the winter may think themselves old-fashioned. Fancy that! Clocks with hands that move, not dots that blink!

Whatever kind of device we use to keep our time, the switch back from Daylight Saving Time happens Sunday at 2 a.m. That’s the official moment when time “falls back” to 1 a.m., gaining the hour lost in the “spring forward” change.

Eric Ryback is an expert at saving time. He’s the owner of the St. Louis Street Clock Co., and he restores and reproduces the kind of time-keeping devices that just aren’t made anymore.

“Post” or “sidewalk” clocks used to be put up by businesses to draw passers-by to see advertisements for wares and services while checking the time. The few that survive are owned by municipalities that had the foresight to save them, or by private collectors, Ryback says.

This historic street clock stands at Washington Avenue and Lumiere Place Boulevard in Laclede’s Landing.
Photo courtesy Show Me Missouri
Here in St. Louis, there’s one such survivor, now in Laclede’s Landing at the corner of Washington Avenue and Lumiere Place Boulevard.

The clock was originally bought by Moll’s grocery at 5659 Delmar Boulevard, just north of DeBaliviere Avenue, in the West End. The store was founded in 1858. A photo taken in 1932 shows the clock doing its duty, despite its age even at the time: Ryback said the timepiece was probably made in the 1880s.

After decades with Moll’s, the clock was adopted by Laclede Gas and moved to Laclede’s Landing. In recent years, after the clock needed to be removed for repairs (not Ryback’s work, he noted) and the neighborhood’s traffic patterns changed along with renovations to the Gateway Arch grounds, the clock found its current home at Washington and Lumiere Place, under the jurisdiction of the Laclede’s Landing Neighborhood Association.

Moll’s grocery store, 5659 Delmar Boulevard, seen here in 1932, uses a street clock to give passers-by the time, and time to note the business’s name.
The street clocks were heavy, made of cast iron to withstand years of outdoor service – and, undoubtedly, the temptation of street thieves.  Made before the days of widespread electricity, such clocks had weights to drive their hands and had to be wound every eight days. Many were later converted, but some still get wound by hand, Ryback said.

Some tower clocks are also still hand-wound, he said, citing one in Buffalo, N.Y., and one at a courthouse in Houston.

In fact, he said, twice a year when the clocks need to be reset for Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time, a small cadre of experts flies to the rescue to take care of the hand-mechanized big public timepieces around the nation.

“There are a couple of people in the U.S. who hand-reset clocks,” Ryback explained.

The big clock at St. Louis Union Station, by the way, is not one of them.  It is now powered by electricity.

Time has taken its toll of street clocks, Ryback said. As sturdy as they were, they stood out on corners and curbs, prime targets for damage by delivery wagons and trucks as well as the weather. When inner mechanisms failed, many got junked instead of fixed. And when World War II came along and metal was desperately needed for weapons manufacturing, scrap metal drives hauled off pounds and pounds of that solid cast iron from the nation’s streets.

Ryback mourns their loss. He cited the new developments in St. Louis, especially in the downtown corridor where tourists gather, and said he had tried to interest some of the developers in including a street clock in their projects.

“No interest,” he said.

Eric Ryback displays his exact reproduction of a Griffin Bracket Clock.
Ryback, however, continues in his avocation, spending his time saving history. He works out of his garage and stores large items in a warehouse in the city.

His skill was rewarded with a first-place win as well as the People’s Choice Award at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors’ 2018 convention for a complete reproduction of an iconic piece, a Griffin Bracket Clock. Only three were made, and none survives. So Ryback recreated one.

He spent a year on the project, and some lucky buyer can own it, or other clocks he has restored.

Such old-fashioned time-keeping may seem odd. But Ryback points out a significant advantage to hand-wound timepieces.

“When the power goes out, these clocks keep going,” he said, with a smile in his voice.






June Heath

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