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Long IslandSuffolk

Village has 4th-generation clock custodian

Once a week, Chris Cullen climbs 19 rungs up two narrow ladders into the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church in the Village of Babylon to wind the clock believed to have been put there in 1871.

Sometimes, this is before he takes the morning train into Manhattan, where he is a building manager. More often, it's at night, upon his return, when the church is empty and silent.

The clock fills most of a tiny room. A small tag identifies its manufacturer as A.S. Hotchkiss, who sold his business to the Seth Thomas company, an industry giant that made millions of clocks before going out of business before World War II.

The clock is cast iron and oak with a calibrated mass of brass gears and regulating dials inside, a heavy ticking pendulum on its front and two heavy weights suspended below.

One of these, attached to the bell, has been little used since the installation, five years ago, of an electronic carillon; the other is attached to the clock's timing device. Gravity's measured pull on it has powered the clock for the better part of 141 years.

"This goes back to horses and buggies," Cullen said one recent night, up in the tiny room. "This goes back to when they didn't have roads. It's been around longer than any of us."

Cullen is 49, the village's fourth official clock custodian in nearly a century. He took office in 1992 when his father-in-law, Donald Hoevels, retired; Hoevels had taken over from his father, Otto in 1964. Otto had succeeded one Phineas E. Robinson, who died in office in 1937.

The job carries a $2,000 stipend, paid by village taxpayers. Mayor Ralph Scordino says this has always been the arrangement, perhaps because the steeple was the most prominent architectural feature in the village when the clock was installed. Village resident Judy Skillen found 19th century newspaper accounts of the clock's purchase that support this theory. "From the very beginning, there was always the understanding that the clock was to be in the church but the responsibility of the village," she said.

In the 19th century, with few watches carried by the citizenry, the village clock was a point of pride and a symbol of civic achievement.

Records of clock custodians abound "going back hundreds and hundreds of years in this country and abroad," said Nancy Dyre, archivist at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Lancaster, Pa. Many of those jobs went unfilled after World War II with a wave of electrification of church and town clocks, said Chuck Roeser, who owns a clock repair shop outside of Buffalo and has done restoration jobs on Long Island.

"Many people didn't consider these clocks to be valuable. For them, these were just pieces of machinery," he said.

Cullen assumed office without pomp, some years after he'd begun helping his father-in-law with the work. The older man was no longer nimble enough to climb the ladders and his daughter, Diane, Cullen's wife, wasn't strong enough to turn the stubborn crank. But it was important to him that his family continue its service, his daughter recalled.

When he grows too old to climb the ladders, the Cullens' daughter, Maggie, now 12, will be big enough to carry on. "I know it runs in my family and I want to keep it in my family," Diane said.


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