Welder Keeps Old Clocks Ticking
Carl Witt never has to wonder what time is.
His tidy little home, which sits on his grandparents’ former farm in Fairview, West Virginia, is packed with clocks — over 100 by his estimation, though that seems like a low-ball estimate.
“I’ve got clocks in every room,” Witt says.
But these aren’t just any clocks. Many of them are rare, and old.
He has a grandfather clock from 1775. He has mantle clocks and vintage German alarm clocks. There’s a clock to help nuns remember when to pray. There’s a clock for blind people that chimes every 15 minutes to let you know a quarter of an hour has passed.
The latest additions to his collection — two gigantic, hand-carved Bavarian cuckoo clocks — hang in his bedroom.
“It’s a living mechanism,” Witt said. "I’ve always said (the sound) brings your house to life. Even if you have one in your house, it brings it to life."
Witt hasn’t always been obsessed with clocks. He was originally more of a general interest antiques collector. But then he got a few clocks and needed to have them repaired. That’s when he crossed paths with Charles Decker.
Decker was in his late 70s at the time. He had spent over 40 years repairing clocks in Texas where business was so lucrative that Decker only drove Cadillacs — that he paid cash for.
He eventually moved back to Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania, where he was from. And that's where he was when Carl Witt started bringing him clocks to fix.
“I took one in," Witt said. "Then I took another in. Then we started exchanging stories a lot. And he had some very unique clocks, too."
The two hit it off. Now, when Witt would spot a clock at an antique mall or flea market, he’d buy it for Decker. Decker would pay him back, fix it up and flip it.
One day, Decker asked if Witt wanted to learn to repair clocks. Witt said he would like that.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to pay you,’” Witt remembers. “I said ‘I don't’ want you to pay me. You’re training me.’”
Witt began making the half-hour drive to Decker’s home, five days a week. Early on, he got all the dirty work.
“I would take out the movements and he would work on them, and I’d put them back in. Or I’d clean the cases,” he said.
But gradually, in addition to his grunt work, Decker started to teach Witt how to repair clocks.
“Sometimes he’d have to leave and he’d say ‘I want you to do this while I’m gone.’ And it was like, OK I have to impress this guy. Because he’s kind of my mentor,” Witt said.
Decker showed Witt how to replace worn-out gears and the tightly coiled metal springs that keep clocks moving. And he showed him how to fix a clock’s metal bushings, the little O-rings that hold the works in place. When bushings wear out, clocks run erratically or stop working altogether. So Decker showed Witt how to cut new ones and replace them.
“They have to line up straight. If they don’t, sometimes you can ruin the whole movement,” Witt said.
This mentorship went on for years upon end, five days a week. And Witt never did get paid for his services. He had another full-time job to pay his bills: welding at the Pratt and Whitney Engine Services in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Four days a week, he would leave the clock shop at 2 p.m. and make the hour-long drive to Bridgeport where he would put in a 10-hour shift.
Welding might have paid his bills, but his heart was in Decker’s clock shop.
“I couldn’t wait to get there to help him. Before we’d start, me and him and his wife would sit and drink a coffee. My grandparents were all gone and he kind of filled that void. He was an ornery character, but I miss him. He was a good friend,” Witt said.
Decker died in 2011 at the age of 85. Witt’s apprenticeship had ended about two years earlier as Decker slowed down and sold off his clock repair equipment. The two remained friends, but now that his training was coming to an end, Witt decided it was time for a big move.
“It was time for me to live the life he lived,” he said.
Witt retired from his welding job at the factory and started Curiosity Clockworks, just across the road from his house in a building that once served as his grandfather’s horse barn.
The workshop’s single room is filled floor to ceiling with clocks of all kinds. Lots are from fellow collectors. Others are family heirlooms, brought here in hopes that Witt can get them moving again.
“I’ve had people bring in clocks from Walmart. Quartz clocks, battery driven. Well, that meant more to me — and more to them — than just buying them at a flea market,” he said.
No matter what kind of clock it is, Witt repairs each one like Decker is watching over his shoulder.
Other repairmen might just replace an old clock’s movement with a new one made in a factory in Korea. But that’s not how Decker would have done it, so that’s not how Witt does it either.
“I like to do it the hard way and make it right. I try to go with everything original that I can on them,” he said.
That approach is becoming difficult. Sometimes clocks sit in Witt’s shop for months, waiting for the right gear or movement to appear on eBay. And for that to happen, it means someone else’s cuckoo clock was damaged so badly the only thing left to do was sell it for parts.
Although parts are becoming harder to find, Witt doesn’t expect clocks will ever fall completely out of usefulness.
They’ve lasted this long, after all.
“Some of those clocks that are 200-some years old are still running," he said. "Your cellphone only lasts a year or two and then it’s outdated. A clock, it never changes itself at all."
Witt plans to keep Curiosity Clockworks ticking along.
The engine factory called recently and offered him his old job back. He took it. Welders, it seems, are as hard to find as gears for cuckoo clocks.
Witt plans to continue working on clocks in his free time. After all, that’s how he learned in the first place. He might even train an apprentice someday … if the Carl Witt to his Charles Decker happens to come along.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.