Volunteers keep Fort Monroe clocks running smoothly

Jonathan Black
Contact Reporterjoblack@dailypress.com

Climbing to the top of Fort Monroe's Building 5 takes dexterity. People must pull themselves up a ladder, pivot onto an adjoining ladder to avoid a weak step and maneuver around wooden beams once at the top.

For four volunteers with the Fort Monroe Authority, it's become much less an obstacle and more so just part of the job. Alan Bomar, David Stalfort, Doug Daniel and John Doucette meet every Wednesday at noon sharp to wind the clocks of Fort Monroe.

"It keeps the military spirit alive," Stalfort said. "It keeps the place looking active when the clocks are running."

The two clocks are located in Building 83, formerly the post office and now the main office for the authority, and Building 5, former barracks inside the fort.

When the authority moved into its current office in June 2015, they found the structure's four-faced clock covered in plastic. Glenn Oder, executive director of Fort Monroe Authority, brought in a clocksmith to show how to inspect the clocks before commissioning volunteers to maintain them.

"We've kept the name 'fort' in all that we do and tried to find as many of the practices the Army did, historically. We've tried to continue those," he said. "We thought this was the perfect opportunity to find some volunteers that would follow up with the clock. It's in safe hands."

Every week the clock keepers begin their job by climbing to the third floor of Building 83. They make sure the 1898 clock reflects the time accurately. Humidity can result in the clock running slow, while dry and cold weather can speed it up.

The only other maintenance usually needed is a bit of dusting and maybe a drop of oil to keep things moving smoothly.

Once everything is checked off, the volunteer winds the clock to keep it operating for another seven days. Then it's time for the short walk through the fort and across the Parade Ground to the former barracks that house the other clock, which dates back to 1903.

"One of the things at Fort Monroe is to live, work, play and learn," Bomar said. "It's neat to be able to walk across the Parade Ground and see the clock. It really shows the fort living."

All four of the volunteers have an engineering background. Bomar, Stalfort and Doucette live on the fort, while Daniel is a Williamsburg resident who's been tinkering with clocks for more than 25 years.

The group's interest in learning how things work makes the job a natural fit. They're working on extending the life of the clock's bell in the barracks. It runs six and a half days, just short of the group's weekly winding. In total, it'll ring 72 times a day.

"If you look at the schedules of Fort Monroe, your day as a soldier was cut and dry. At 6 o'clock you do this, at 6:30 you do this," said Robert Kelly, Casemate Museum historian. "When you hear the bell ring, it's pretty cool. It takes you back to the 1800s when it was constructed."

Two people are needed to reach the barracks clock due to the twisting nature of ladder climb. On the off chance only one volunteer can make it a week, as was the case in mid-May, the clock is fine, as it has a running life of two weeks before needing attention.

"It's called an eight-day clock, but it'll run two weeks," Daniel said. "It depends on how the weights fall."

The clocks were essential to civilian and military life on the fort. The post office's clock assisted in timekeeping for the nearby hotel and street cars. The barracks clock acted as a timekeeper for the 1,500 men living around near the Parade Ground.

While the four volunteers don't adhere to military standards of punctuality, it's certain they'll pinpoint if someone's late for the job.

Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.

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