Europeans have always been fond of public clocks. One has only to visit the downtown of almost any major city, town, or village, to see the timepieces, often beautiful and elaborate, that grace all manner of public buildings. Some of these clocks date back to the Middle Ages and are now famous tourist attractions.
The Victorians and Edwardians were especially fascinated by timepieces, and their heyday saw a rebirth of the public clock on both sides of the Atlantic. Though never as common a sight as in Europe, the public clock in North America did become fashionable in the late 1800s. The Eastern Townships were not immune to this fad, and a number of towns installed clocks. Some, like Lac-Megantic, boasted several.
But it also served as a village landmark, a reference point, and a symbol of civic pride. Indeed, public clocks were something of a status symbol for a community, a sign that a town had reached a certain level of prosperity, that there was action there.
Public clocks were not cheap. The better models could cost a small fortune. And the specialized mechanisms required to power them were large, cumbersome, and often comlicated to assemble. They also required constant winding and regular maintenance. Not surprisingly, then, not every little village could afford one.
The clock in the Rock Island Post Office employs a mechanism typical of those used in many public buildings at the turn-of-the-century. Imported from England, it was manufactured by the Midland Clockworks in Derbyshire.
CHURCH AND STATE
The most common public clocks in the Townships were those mounted in government buildings or, less often, on church steeples. Beginning in the late 1800s and reaching a peak just after the turn-of-the-century, the federal government constructed a series of monumental buildings of stone and red brick in towns around the Eastern Townships.
According to the Sherbrooke Historical Society, the Public Works department had very specific views on the matter: these buildings had to be "beautiful, imposing, and functional; and had to harmonize with their surroundings."
The results were often quite distinctive, and may still be seen in a number of towns, including Sherbrooke, Coaticook, and others.
Keep your eyes open and look up, for it is only once we are aware of these beautiful timepieces that we can truly begin to appreciate them.