Meet the man watching over the oldest clocks in Texas.
by Chris O’Connell
“They’re all trouble,” says Gene Galbraith, with a laugh, when I ask him which of his dozens of antique clocks hanging from the walls or standing proud in their tall cases on the floor of his palace is the most difficult to keep running.
We’re in downtown Lockhart, the Hill Country town known more for fatty brisket and jalapeño sausage than horological wonders, inside the new location of the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches, which Galbraith founded 10 years ago this March. As we walk, Galbraith, BM ’71, dressed in gray slacks and a navy blazer, with neatly parted, bone-white hair, looks every bit the docent that he — by default — is. He gives me a private tour on a Friday (the free museum is open only to walk-ins on Saturdays), taking me through the sectioned off rooms, divided by region: America, Great Britain, and France and Germany. I learn things I’d never known about clocks.
The grandfather clock is actually called a tall-case, and only became known as such after 1876, when Henry Clary Work wrote a song called “My Grandfather’s Clock,” about one “too large for the shelf” that sat on the floor of his grandfather’s house for more than 90 years.
Benjamin Franklin once drew up blueprints for a bonkers-looking clock, one with a different tooth-count and where an hour passing looks like 15 minutes, and it only rotates completely every four hours. No one in America would touch it, so in 1740, the newly formed Thwaites & Reed made exactly one and stuck it in a museum. In 1976, in celebration of the Bicentennial, 1,000 reproductions of Franklin’s creation were fabricated, and years later, Galbraith found one in a junk pile at a convention in Houston.
“The man didn’t know what he had,” Galbraith says. “I did. This is obvious.”
American clockmaking was impacted by the British embargo on brass, so many early New England clocks are made from wood foraged from the nearby forests. The gold “death clock” Galbraith owns is called that because the gilders who worked on that type of timepiece didn’t wear masks and many died from mercury poisoning.
This clock, he tells me, pointing to a clock that looks like a banjo, is called a banjo clock. Fair enough.
But the real answer to my question is the clock he’s saved for last. “It’s the P.T. Barnum clock,” he says, that has given the horologist the most trouble.
The P.T. Barnum clock is, unsurprisingly but notably, an unwieldy all-wood clock organ with gold hands, an automaton group of musicians and angels, and oil paintings depicting Bible scenes, that sits atop a desk, owned at one point by the famous showman. The clock portion was built in 1790 in southwest Germany’s Black Forest, and the owner added an organ and a desk, made of flame mahogany overlaid on linden wood, in the mid 1800s. It sat, displayed in a German castle, until one day Barnum saw the piece and became enamored with it, and made a deal with the owner. After Barnum died in 1891, his wife shipped it to her family’s farm in Huntsville, Texas, where it sat in a warehouse, untouched, for more than 70 years. The Barnum family eventually sold some of his old items, and Galbraith bought the clock at the estate sale. When Galbraith opened the cabinet that contains the guts of the organ, he found that rats and bugs had made meals out of three of the pipes. It took Galbraith three years to restore it, and there’s still work to be done, which is apparent when he cranks the left side and the music begins to play.
A dissonant circus tune emanates from the 72 hand-carved wooden pipes crammed into the back of the clock, as wooden cylinders rotate beneath, metal pins determining the note played for one of 10 different possible songs. It’s fast and out of control, the notes wobbly and blending together, sounding like a warped record played at the wrong speed. Some cylinders are cracked, Galbraith points out, and so some of the pins don’t know where to go or have fallen off. Notes are lost to time.
Keeping time is a familiar motif for Galbraith, who spent another life as a chorale conductor, opera singer, and music educator. As he replaces faulty gears and repairs broken hands in an effort to preserve his collection, he also realizes that horology isn’t exactly a burgeoning artform. After he dies, people have to carry on his legacy, and more importantly, the legacies of these timepieces, so that time can march forth unabated and without end.
Without being too melodramatic, Galbraith is quite literally in a race against time to train his successors. In addition to his work with antique timepieces, Galbraith is also the foremost — and perhaps the only — restorer of tower clocks in Texas, an essential skill that, if it isn’t passed down, could be lost forever. Of the 254 counties in Texas, only 55 still have courthouse clocks. Of those 55, only a dozen or so still work.
Galbraith started training museum docent and board member Dan Sweet a few years ago to fix the tower clocks, but, approaching 80, he had to pack it in after his knees went out. A new, younger docent named Ben Courtney is his most recent mentee, but he’s still too green to fix them himself. Until his replacement is up to speed, an 83-year-old retired music teacher is the only man for the job.
Elton Eugene Galbraith was born Francis Elton Galbraith on April 17, 1935, in a two-room shack in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood. Shortly after his birth, his name was changed to Elton Eugene, which he then shortened to just Gene. He attended The University of Texas, graduating with a bachelor’s of music in 1971 and spent the next 20 years as a chorale director and music teacher at Porter Junior High, Bedichek Middle School, and Crockett High School in Austin.
Galbraith retired in 1991, and began an apprenticeship at McGuire’s Clocks on Airport Boulevard in Austin, which bills itself as the oldest clockmaker in Texas. He liked problem solving, and owned an antiques store in South Austin with his wife, so he already had some clocks he’d fixed himself. One of his first pieces was the P.T. Barnum clock. To begin, he took the clock completely apart, and photographed each piece individually.
“In my mechanical mind,” Galbraith says, “I was able to understand how it worked and why it worked and what had to be fixed.”
After five years at McGuire’s, the owner, Ray, turned to Galbraith and said, simply, “Well, you’re on your own now.” Galbraith was overwhelmed. He felt confident in his abilities as a horologist, but didn’t know what to do or where to go with his newly honed skill. Luckily — and because there isn’t a wellspring of people who can shake the rust off a pre-Revolutionary War clock, damaged as it clunked around in a U-Haul during a trip from the East Coast — Old Timer Clock Shop on West 35th Street hired Galbraith immediately.
His first job was to restore that very clock made by Peter Stretch, a Quaker Brit who fled to Philadelphia in 1703 to avoid religious persecution and went on to become the first clockmaker to come from the Old World.
“You stand in awe,” Galbraith says, of working on pieces with such rich, significant history. From there, Galbraith started researching everything he could on the great clockmakers of Europe, collecting pieces on his own as well. He looked around his house one day and realized that he had collected various clocks and antiques over the years, but had nowhere to put them. This is where Galbraith’s intrinsic need to share the splendor of history with the greater public blossomed. I don’t want people coming to see these clocks at my house, he thought. Why don’t I start a museum?
When he told Larson his idea, his boss asked, “Does Austin need a clock museum?”
“I need a clock museum,” Galbraith responded. That was enough for Larson. He told Galbraith he’d put up the first $500. Still unsure of where to put the museum, Galbraith embarked on a new venture in 2005. The Caldwell County Courthouse tower clock, erected in 1917, had fallen into disrepair. Galbraith was called in to make a major fix, and was named Caldwell County’s master horologist. Galbraith got the tower clock up and running, and the bells have chimed on the hour and echoed through the town square ever since. Shortly after, Galbraith led a group tour through the tower, to display to the public what he had done. He now knew where to build his museum.
On March 24, 2008, the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches opened its doors on the town square in Lockhart, in the shadow of the busted tower clock he brought back to life. It was the third major museum dedicated strictly to horology in the United States, after the National Watch and Clock Museum and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and the first of its kind in the American South.
For nine years, every Saturday, Galbraith lured international crowds to his museum, post-pulled pork, via outreach programs and special events, like watchmaking classes and country music concerts. Along the way, he collected more antique timepieces, either purchased at auction, loaned from private collectors, donated by patrons, or hauled off the scrap-heap and resuscitated by Galbraith himself. He also assembled a museum board to oversee finances, purchases, and operations. Any early convert was Sweet, a local retiree who first agreed to volunteer without knowing a thing about clocks, became a docent on his first day, and is now vice president of the board.
On his first Saturday eight years ago, Sweet told Galbraith that he couldn’t possibly lead a tour of the museum, as he only knew about the clocks in his home and the watch on his wrist. An hour later, Sweet was thrust into action, leading a small group from timepiece to timepiece. Halfway through, Galbraith joined the group and listened in, as Sweet rattled off dates and countries and clockmakers as if from memory. When the tour was over and the group was out of earshot, Galbraith pulled Sweet aside.
“You lied,” he said. “You said you didn’t know anything about clocks!”
“I don’t,” Sweet responded. “I worked in sales for 40 years. Everything is written on a plaque. I can read people.” He’s been a regular docent ever since, and Galbraith calls him both his right-hand man and “The Wizard of Time.” When I spoke to Sweet, he was nonchalant about the clocks themselves — “Whichever one I’m in front of while entertaining people, that’s my favorite clock,” he says — but hammered home his fondness for the museum and its owner.
One gets the sense that Sweet hangs around not only because it gets him out of the house, but because he enjoys Galbraith’s company, even if he admits that the former schoolteacher can sometimes come rearing back if a docent isn’t on time for a tour.
“He’s amazing at his musical talents,” Sweet says. “He knows when he walks by a clock if it’s on time or not, just by the beat. He’s an amazing man. And he puts up with me.”
Dianne Stevenson, a volunteer of nine years and a longtime board member, revels in the interest the museum gets from horologists around the globe and adores certain individual pieces Galbraith has collected, especially a Mickey Mouse pocket watch that sits in a glass case next to gilded antiques. Stevenson loves it, even though it’s kitschy-looking, comprised of plastic and metal. Stevenson lived in Salsburg, Austria, from kindergarten through second grade, which is where she developed a love for antique clocks. When she learned about the museum just after it opened, she fell in love with it. As she observes what Galbraith has built, how far the museum has come from inception to present day, she’s eminently proud of him.
“I’ve never seen him not able to repair a clock that is brought in,” she says. “He will literally make a part if there is not one available. The man is a genius.”
At the end of 2016, the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches lost its year-to-year lease. Without a gallery to call his own, Galbraith was forced to pack his inventory of magnificent clocks from around the world and put them into five storage units. The whole idea of having the museum was so visitors to Central Texas could see and learn about the history of horology, its story told through ornate cuckoos from Bavaria and a reconstructed London tower clock, bombed during the Blitzkriegs of World War II, for which Galbraith won the blue-ribbon and gold medal prize at a clock convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2014.
After eight months of being in limbo and not knowing if the museum would ever find a home, Galbraith got a fortuitous phone call in March 2017. A man named Bill Genn who owned a building on San Antonio Street, directly across the way from the Caldwell County Courthouse and the clock that brought horology to Lockhart, wanted the museum to live on. He lived upstairs in a condo, but there was plenty of space downstairs for a large gallery. He even promised a 10-year lease.
“The owner wants us to stay,” Galbraith says. “He’s taking less money for rent than he could if he had a commercial entity in here.” Galbraith’s daughter, a local real estate agent, told her father that normally, he’d have to pay between $3,500-$4,000 monthly for that prime space. Galbraith says he pays half that.
Before moving in, Galbraith constructed distinct galleries to separate the clocks by region. He added iron columns that stretch from the floor almost to the vaulted ceiling, and installed a streetlamp to give an outdoor feeling indoors. On Oct. 7, 2017, the museum re-opened to the public, just four doors down from the original museum site, in an old J.C. Penney building.
“People love to come into this place because it’s so beautiful,” Galbraith says. “They have made wonderful comments about what has happened here.”
The money for restorations such as these, and for new clocks, comes from a variety of sources. There are patrons of the museum, fundraisers, and, as Galbraith’s expertise has grown, contracts with various municipalities across the state to repair their dilapidated tower clocks. So far, Galbraith has restored tower clocks in Caldwell, Cooke, Franklin, Fort Bend, Colorado, and Hood Counties, with contracts for three more. He climbs sometimes 100 feet to the tops of rickety structures, diagnosing problems with gears or governors, and replacing them himself. Sometimes, as is the case with the Lockhart tower clock, he fashions new parts by hand. When ice accumulated on the face and wind whipped the courthouse last year during a particularly harsh spring spell, the gearing was damaged and the clock stopped. Galbraith climbed the tower, as he does every week when he winds the clock, and took apart the face. The shear pins on the shaft stripped when the storm hit, so he realigned it and fixed the hands himself.
On a cold spring day not unlike the one he describes a year before, Galbraith is excited to take me up to that very tower. After a short elevator ride, we climb up a wobbly attic ladder, an impossibly narrow set of stairs, and a pair of metal horizontal bars, chilled cold and perilous for me, much less for an octogenarian.
When we arrive at the tiny perch at the top of the tower, Galbraith is out of breath. “You’re one of very few people to see this,” he says.
He walks me through the parts of the clock, and shows me how he knows that the time is off. He grabs his tool, called a key, and starts winding. He can’t wait for me to feel the bells reverberate through the wooden floors.
“What we have to do is allow the clock to strike the hour, so be ready,” he says, at six minutes past noon. “It’s going to be exciting.” Nothing happens. At 10 past noon he’s still winding, winding. Nothing. The master clock on the wall ticks away, reminding him that the time is off, and won’t be in sync until he gets it right.
“It’s a good thing I came up here,” Galbraith says. “It should have been chiming away.”
More seconds tick away. The gears of the clock click, the only sound other than Galbraith’s breathing. “It’s a mystery, mystery,” he says.
Then, without warning, it happens. The clock strikes 12 times with such violent fervor that it feels like this nest might be unsafe. Galbraith appears unmoved. Lockhart, or Clockhart, as he cheekily calls it in promotional materials, is back on time.
Then we climb down, even more gingerly than before, down the bars, down the stairs, down the ladder. Galbraith grabs a broom and with the handle, slams the attic trap shut. He looks at me and speaks for the first time in a few minutes, and I wait for something revelatory, something about the meaning of time, the passage of hours and minutes and seconds, how the mind of the musician keeps the beat endlessly in his head.
“Now,” he says, “go wash your hands.”