BETA

In search of a lost time

“I think it’s absolutely worth taking care of.”

“It is beautiful. When do you think it’s from?”

Both men stare at the clock on the glass counter between them. It’s three feet long, wooden, and banjo-shaped, with a pastoral scene painted on its case. Emblazoned on the bottom are the words “New Haven Clock Company.”

“Probably 1900. New Haven made a lot of clocks like this around then.”

Its grey-haired, flannel-clad owner is still sweating from carrying it in from his Jeep. “Why’d they go out of business?”

A shrug. “The economy.”

“New Haven had a lot of industry that, when it went, took New Haven with it.”

Raymond Pavkov, the only certified master clockmaker in the state of Connecticut, is all too aware, and he offers his customer a small smile. Raymond has a thin, friendly mouth, wire glasses, and a round nose. He wears a knee-length denim apron that he uses for all sorts of things: to serve as a buffer between his skin and the metal when twisting off jagged parts, to protect his neat plaid button-downs from enamel spills, and to store the writing utensils that peep over the seam of his breast pocket. He sports a modern Seiko watch with a thick-linked black plastic strap (“I like it,” he says, amused at my assumption that he would wear an old-fashioned wind-up) on his left wrist and a simple gold wedding band on his fourth finger. His palms are callused. Small tufts of pale hair sprout up at his knuckles, miniatures of the patches that protrude on either side of his otherwise bald head.

Raymond talks with his hands. When he is thinking, his fingers lace together like mechanical teeth. Or his pointer lands on his lower lip, falling into place the way a wire slips into its groove. Listening to his customer, he taps out the seconds on the glass case where he makes transactions and displays his first-ever clock—a wooden Gilbert he purchased as a teenager. The case is filled with assorted memorabilia, “stuff only I would care about,” he says: toy models of bulldozers, watch fobs, racecar patches, and dozens of pins with logos of fast food joints, cartoonish American flags, and one-liners like “200th Anniversary Bill of Rights.” In the 43 years since he opened Yankee Clock Peddler, Raymond’s hands have repaired thousands of clocks. When faced with pinions and wheels, they shift automatically into gear.

The store has a showroom in the front with hundreds of American timepieces crammed in the shelves and covering the walls: flat-faced dials, rosewood grandfathers, kitchen clocks shaped like mini cathedrals and city halls, vintage timers, long clocks with lazy pendulums, clocks with spring movements, clocks with quartz movements, early wind-up alarms, decorative clocks with elegant ironworks or elaborate carvings or oil paintings, boxy blonde shelf clocks, an original hickory-dickory-dock with a toy mouse that slides down with a ding when the catch is released at one o’clock. Every hour on the hour, the store explodes with music. Many of the clocks are just slightly off, so it’s five minutes of chiming and ringing, a cacophony of cuckoos and doorbells—one sounds like a train coming into a station, another is programmed with bird calls.

Yankee Clock Peddler is sandwiched between Rae’s Driving School and Quinnipiac Gold and Diamond Exchange in a shopping plaza just off State St., North Haven’s main thoroughfare. Eight-wheelers barrel past the American flag and enormous CLOCKS banner Raymond has unfurled outside. In the storefront window, a prominent sign announces “Clock Sale Today, no matter the season, and an omniscient dial-face declares it is three-o’clock, no matter the hour.

Raymond finishes the transaction: the repair will cost between $500 and $550; it’ll be ready around Christmastime. “I’ll miss it when it’s gone,” his customer says, and Raymond, who knows how clocks can start to feel like part of the family, promises to take good care of it.

***

Seven miles down State St. from Raymond’s store—along the railroad tracks that first connected New Haven to New York in the 1890s, solidifying the growing Connecticut city’s status as one of the nation’s export capitals—a complex of 14 red brick buildings sprawls four square blocks in the old industrial heart of New Haven. The buildings’ huge, curved windows are boarded up with plywood painted in a messy approximation of burnished brick. The alleyways and courtyards, where workers once emerged for fresh air and a smoke, are littered with broken glass, uprooted stones, and accumulated trash. In the lower-right corner lurks the complex’s only tenant: Scores Gentleman’s Club, where disco lights and cheetah print carpets fail to completely conceal either the building’s former grandeur or its present state of decay.

This is the New Haven Clock Factory, once the largest clock manufacturer in the world. It employed 1500 workers at its peak and churned out over three million timepieces each year for export around the globe. In the early 19th century, a man named Chauncey Jerome—the sort of tinkering, upwardly mobile, white male patriot who embodied American opportunity—founded the clock company that brought New Haven’s name, engraved on enameled wood, to mantelpieces from London to Singapore.

Things have long since stopped ticking. At the start of World War II, the company turned its attention to the U.S. military. By 1942, it had stopped making clocks altogether in order to devote itself fully to “our Country’s service.”  After 125 years of timepiece production, the New Haven Clock Company began building bomb fuses, automatic machine parts, radio instruments for the navy, and precision motors for the operating remotes in airplanes. In 1947, New Haven clocks returned to stores, but the company was in bad shape. Workers lost vital skills in the shift to wartime production. The factory’s equipment was decades old, competition was fierce, and electric models began to dominate the industry. In 1956, the company filed for bankruptcy, and in 1960, everything was liquidated.

Raymond was once inside the factory. He’d repaired a clock for an employee of the development company that owned the buildings, and the customer invited Raymond to poke around and take whatever he could find. Raymond, who knew so much about the factory at its peak, was disappointed. “It wasn’t a fun place,” he says. What remained mostly wasn’t worth fixing. He preferred the company as Chauncey Jerome had envisioned it in his autobiography, and the factory as it was in old photos: a frenzy of activity, invention, and industry.

Those buildings stand quietly as obstinate reminders of an old America. They tell a story of extreme wealth, eventual abandonment, and the relentlessness of time. Most people have forgotten the New Haven Clock Company and its age of greatness—but not Raymond. Nearly 200 years after the company was founded and over 50 since the factory closed, its clocks still run in Raymond’s shop.

***

The back room of Yankee Clock Peddler is Raymond’s workshop. It smells like sour lubricant from the “supposedly non-toxic” solution he plunges the gears in to clean them. The workbench has every manner of tool: drills, hooks, plates, torches, grapnels, grinnels, pieces of wood to burnish, bits of leather to prevent dents, glues, weights, springs, screwdrivers, pliers, and clamps, some of which he refashions from “old junk” in his friend’s machine shop. “I make tools you’ll never find in the catalog,” he says. His perch at the bench allows him to work on a clock, preside over the showroom, and watch the TV—always FOX News on mute—that is nestled in a nearby shelf. There are clocks back here too, but these hang silently on the walls or sit gutted on the shelves, each waiting its turn for the clockmaker to restore them to their former glory.

Today, he turns his attention to a Smith eight-day dial: he takes it off the wall and sets it on his workbench. It’s a relatively simple clock—a much easier fix than the New Haven banjo. This is how it’s supposed to work: winding it up with a key, one is really tightening the coil inside, storing enough energy there to last eight days if it is released at the correct rate. A part called the escapement regulates that: like a nozzle on a hose, it controls the speed of the uncoiling by allowing the wire to slide out over only one tooth at a time. There are three main wheels inside the clock that are responsible for pretty much all the action. One corresponds to the second hand, one to the minute, and one to the hour. When everything is running properly, one wheel spins 12 times faster than the next, so that the second hand makes one full rotation each minute, the minute hand makes one full rotation each hour, and the hour hand makes one full rotation every 12 hours. This clock, however, isn’t working—the owner said he’d felt something slip when he wound it. Raymond guesses it’s a problem with the main spring, but he won’t really be able to tell until he takes it all apart.

First, he removes the bronze hands, untwisting the tapered pins that hold them there with a pair of pliers. The flat face looks eerie without them, like it’s missing its nose. He expertly removes the screws, lifting off the whole front plate as if opening a can. He grabs a pair of goggles from a shelf above the bench, the kind a dentist wears, with tiny magnifying glasses that protrude out on each lens. Raymond bends over the clock’s teeth. The balance platform—comprised of the escapement and the balance wheel, a weight that ticks with each oscillation—is the most vulnerable part of the machine. Even a tap could break it, so he removes it with the utmost care. A sequence of numbers is etched into the metal underneath. He looks mildly surprised as he notices his own registered number. Decoding it, he sees he repaired this clock in 2003.

Raymond is getting close to the mainspring now. He undoes the four post pins that hold in the front wheel, then takes off the clutch, a flat bronze leaf that’s the culprit for a clock that’s losing time. He removes the coil from the barrel and it expands like a slinky in his palm. The end is jagged and broken at the hole where it screws into the rest of the apparatus. Having identified the problem, he wipes the piece on a towel where it leaves splotches of greenish gunk. Then he chops off the end, and prepares to punch a new hole by heating the metal with a blue propane flame until the steel changes color and becomes soft. Then the hole punch with a swift bang. The shrill file to round the edges, the silicone lubricant so that it slips right in. Now all there is to do is put it back together the same way.

***

Yankee Clock Peddler takes its name from the 19th century New England men who once touted Connecticut clocks throughout the country, generating a whole lot of resentment as they cut local middlemen out of the equation. A newspaper from that time notes that the success of the Yankee peddlers was such that “a yankee clock now graces every cabin throughout the west; and the backwoodsmen… when boasting of their exploits, always add, ‘I can stand anything but a clock pedlar.’”

With Raymond as a tour guide, a walk through the shop is a walk through the history of clocks in America. Here are the foreign clocks, imported around 1810, the name of the jeweler in cursive on onyx or marble. These were exorbitantly expensive—about $35 (or $650, with inflation) as opposed to the models the Yankees soon developed for just $4.50 (about 80 in today’s dollars). All the most important innovations happened in Connecticut. In Thomaston, Seth Thomas developed Formica coating to make cheap pine look like rosewood. In East Windsor, Eli Terry invented interchangeable parts, paving the way for assembly production. In Plymouth, Chauncey Jerome designed the one-day brass clock, a tremendous improvement from the wooden clocks that came earlier. Clocks became ubiquitous in every American household, and export began in earnest: Ingraham’s mahogany carriage clocks, Gilbert’s cherry shelf models, Waterbury’s gingerbreads with their elaborate oak headboards. Eventually, quartz movements replaced springs. Wristwatches took the place of pocket watches; digital displays displaced analogs. Yankee Clock Peddler has it all, from a $35 kitchen timer to a $3998 Emperor grandfather clock that stands serenely in the corner, its polished brass interior reflecting the rest of the store.

Many of the clocks are New Haven Clock Company models, some of the millions churned out over the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1793, Chauncey Jerome, who would one day found the company, was born in Litchfield, CT. He worked on his family’s farm as a child and enlisted in the military as a teenager. Jerome made dials for the old-fashioned long clock under the supervision of Eli Terry, inventor of interchangeable parts. Jerome took spare parts from Terry’s workshop and refashioned them into his own designs. Soon, he invented the one-day brass clock, which was more effective and less expensive than its predecessors. In 1817, he founded the Jerome Clock Company in Plymouth, CT. Twenty-seven years, one fire, a couple of bad business deals, and the corporation’s first bankruptcy later, the factory moved to Hamilton St. and was rechristened the New Haven Clock Company.

Chauncey Jerome transformed himself from a penniless farm boy to the world’s biggest manufacturer of timepieces. This was 19th century America, where a life like that was possible, though not for everyone. Jerome and his Connecticut Clockmaking compatriots were all white, male, and Christian. Women, African Americans, and immigrants entered into the frame only as smock-clad workers lined up at the hundreds of identical workbenches in old photos of the New Haven Clock Factory. Over the course of the 1800s, New Haven’s population exploded, mostly due to an influx of immigrants looking for work, and the clock factory was the biggest employer. The workers made the city tick, but Jerome is the one in the history books. He had successfully transplanted the clock from the craftsman’s workshop to the assembly line.

Now everybody had to have one. They were so useful and only four dollars!  Suddenly, you were expected to arrive on time to work or dinner. You could check the schedule, consult your mantle-clock, and hop on a railroad. You could wake up when you actually intended. The Yankee Peddlers, with their cocked hats and bad reputations, spread Connecticut clocks all over the country. From the harbors of New Haven and New York, workers loaded them into ships and sent them all over the world.

***

Raymond Pavkov was born in 1947 in rural Ohio, and grew up—like Chauncey Jerome—on a small farm. He traces his love of mechanical parts to his family’s garage, where he was obsessed with greasing the axles on the equipment. When there was time—and there often wasn’t, since he had to help sow the fields, clean the barn, and drive the bulldozer—he’d start to fiddle, fascinated by how the machines worked. He bought his first clock (the Gilbert that he keeps atop Yankee Clock Peddler’s transaction counter) when he was still in Ohio; his mother thought he was crazy. Forty-five dollars was a lot of money then, and to drop it on an antique clock shaped like a bell-curve or camel hump or—as is their nickname in the business—a Napoleon hat seemed like poor judgment on the part of a foolish teenager. As it turned out, the purchase was an uncanny foreshadowing of Yankee Clock Peddler: Gilbert was a 19th century Connecticut man and a business partner of New Haven’s Jerome. The site of Gilbert Clock Company is less than an hour’s drive from Raymond’s store.

In the summer of 1966, a friend went out of town, leaving to Raymond the care of his gleaming new Corvette. Raymond did what any bored 19-year old would have: he took the car out to an empty strip of highway and decided to floor it. The whole point, as any teenager could tell you, was excitement, but as he got up to 100 miles per hour, he started having fleeting visions of deer, turkeys, shattering fiberglass. He “was making a lot of bad choices” then, and his father’s voice sounded in his head: If you die, you’re going to hell. As he decelerated, he accepted Jesus into his life. Religion offered an alternative to the fear of death, and Raymond accepted it gratefully. “I was 19 years old and I gave my life to God and Christ,” he says. “It makes this life a whole lot easier.”

Raymond helped found a church in Hamden and was pastor there for 33 years. His Christianity is one of faith and one of kindness. He believes it is his responsibility to share his testimony with others, and on Fridays he swaps his denim apron for his purple windbreaker and heads for the Waterford Speedbowl, where he preaches with the Racing for Jesus Ministry. He’s done weddings, baby dedications, and funerals. Recently, he officiated a full military funeral—it was the whole shebang, he says, with three gun-shots, the folded flag, and taps.  

“Taps always does something to you if you’ve been in the service,” Raymond tells me. He enlisted in 1967. He expected to go to Vietnam, but by chance (or, he believes, divine providence), was sent to Germany, where he served as the battalion commander’s driver. He once asked why he was selected for the position. When the time came to clean the latrines, the Sargent Major told him, the other guys slunk off into the woods; Raymond did the job alone, without complaint.

When he returned, Raymond married Sandi, a middle school teacher whom he’d met at church camp in West Virginia, and soon started his apprenticeship, an 8000 hour ordeal, for a seventh generation Hungarian clockmaker about whom he speaks with nostalgic reverence. Exacting and patient, Steve bestowed unto Raymond the knowledge that had passed through so many men in his family.

Raymond would have liked to teach his son the trade, but Adam, now 35, does “something with computers” in Kansas. “He can’t even fix the chain on a bicycle,” Raymond says. On some days, he laments that Adam will not take over his store; on others, he declares that his children (he also has a daughter named Meredith who works for AAA) are successful and happy and that he wouldn’t want them to do anything else.

Raymond has never taken on an apprentice of his own, though he would have liked to. He even asks me, half seriously, half poking fun at just how many questions I have for him: “Do you want to quit that fancy school and become my apprentice?” Fifteen years ago, he placed ads in papers throughout the Nagatuck Valley, the old center of Connecticut clockmaking. He was looking to train someone who could keep Yankee Clock Peddler open after he retires. But nobody was interested. It’s a craft that takes dedication to learn, and it isn’t particularly sexy. Clock repair doesn’t seem so useful in a world where clocks are becoming obsolete. Besides, Raymond couldn’t pay an apprentice much—there’s always been money at the end of the week for shoes, but never much more than that. At least, he says, “When I close the door, I know what I did, I know what I’ve done, I can go to sleep at night.”

***

The history books on Connecticut clockmaking are filled with faces of clocks and faces of men. They all look more or less alike: confident, unblinking, and some shade of white. The fathers of Connecticut Clockmaking—Terry, Ingraham, Thomas, Gilbert, Jerome—mostly came from humble beginnings. A tinkering spirit, a patriotic industriousness, and a knack for entrepreneurship earned them their successes. “The early clockmakers were truly rugged individualiststraits which have never become extinct in this industry,” Ingraham’s grandson told the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers in 1940. Three quarters of a century later, Raymond keeps that spirit alive.

He has one American flag outside his store and another outside his home. He listened to the biography of Harry Truman on tape on a cross-country road trip. He cried during the nighttime ceremony at Mount Rushmore when the spotlight illuminated George Washington. Like the fathers of Connecticut Clockmaking, he is a true patriot, a staunch individualist, a devout evangelical, and an unambiguous white man.

There was a time when men like Raymond Pavkov and Chauncey Jerome defined the American spirit. Those were the years when the New Haven Clock Factory was producing three million timepieces, and the railroad that rumbles down State St. was a novelty.

As America becomes increasingly digitized and diverse, the place of both the clocks and their peddler is uncertain. Raymond speaks matter-of-factly about how there will never be another manufacturing boom like that of the early 1900s. He’s under no delusions that anybody’s father is still winding up the family alarm in the evenings. He owns an iPhone, Bose speakers, and a Mac desktop. “There’s IKEA, and there’s iPhones, and there’s whatever my son does, which has something to do with those annoying ads that pop up—and somewhere in there, clocks don’t fit,” he says. Somewhere in there, neither do men like him.

***

Or so it seemed to me. Then, the 2016 presidential election made the question inescapable: did people like Raymond still call the shots?  It didn’t surprise me to learn that he was voting for Trump: his every demographic suggested it, and every so often he would lament the rise of unions, regulations, and political correctness for stymying the creativity that had once made America great.

As I got to know Raymond, Trump’s slogan, which I had once laughed off, seemed suddenly genius. “America” was the word that originally stuck out to me in “Make America Great Again,” but thinking about Raymond, it was “again” that struck me as brilliant. What if those abandoned buildings could be vibrant again?  What if the inventor down the street could manufacture a product—made with New England timber and Nagatuck Valley mill power—that was 10 times better and 10 times cheaper than what was being produced overseas again? What if you had once been the VIP guest, the first in line, the employee of the month, and the sole preferred flyer in the airport lounge, and you could be, again?

Whenever I visited Raymond, I rode my bike between two deeply divided parts of this country. Yale University and Yankee Clock Peddler are separated by East Rock State Park, Lake Whitney, and an especially steep hill on Davis St.  They are also separated by an ideological expanse that is much more difficult to cross.

My classmates and I peer out across this distance from the towers of our Ivy League institution—that bastion of liberalism in which I am so comfortable—and see one homogenized mass. The mass is white and angry and racist. It’s poor and rural and uneducated. The mass doesn’t want to talk. And how could it?—a mass can’t talk. We, also, are angry. I know I am very angry.

I think of what I know about Raymond. I know that he takes the Christian doctrine of kindness seriously. I know he is creative and hardworking and disciplined. I know he cares deeply about his family. I know he loves barbecue, and dreams of taking the weeklong train ride through the Canadian Rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer, and that when he first met his wife, he knew she was inevitable.

I know that when a clock stops working, Raymond removes its face, inspects its insides, figures out what’s wrong, and fixes it. He has spent over four decades learning how to do this, stocking his workshop with the necessary equipment. He is good at his job, but no matter how many timepieces he repairs, the Yankee Peddlers will never be pioneers venturing out onto the Western frontier again. The New Haven Clock Factory isn’t going start business again. So when Trump came along with his brash promise to open up America and restore what he says has been broken, Raymond was willing to believe that the candidate had the tools he lacked.

I never want our country to return to Raymond’s “again.”  That age of innovation, adventure, and opportunity was reserved for a select few to the exclusion of everybody else. Luckily, Raymond, unlike that undifferentiated mass of voters, loves to talk; the challenge is to get him to stop once he’s started. It’s easy to understand why nostalgia resonates with him. One only has to look to his clocks: hundreds of collectibles he’ll have to auction off on eBay when he retires. His work is quite literally a fight against time. He has spent the past 43 years meticulously, lovingly, making clocks run again.

***

Back at the workbench, Raymond slips the spring back into the barrel. He fits the pivots into the pivot holes, greasing the gears with just a drop of oil. He fastens the last screw, turns the key, and holds his breath. The key winds the coil of the main spring so that it oscillates. The spring releases energy to the first wheel pinion, which is attached to the first wheel gear, which powers the center pinion, which activates the next wheel, which operates the second hand. The clock starts ticking. The bronze strip glides ceaselessly around. We are both mesmerized. For now, it’s impossible to tell if it’s a testament to unending circularity or to the forward march of time.

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