To mark the summer’s waning hours, I headed north last weekend. Flying along on highways where goldenrod nodded in the ditches and Monarch butterflies floated overhead, I drove past Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan in Brandon and the Smallest Church in the World in Festina, to the tiny town of Spillville.
Spillville’s population is 400, a number that’s stayed steady since 1893, when composer Antonín DvoÅ™ák spent the summer there, writing music and playing the pipe organ that still stands at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church.
But Dvorak’s legacy wasn’t what drew me to this town. I came to mark the change of seasons at a museum dedicated to time: The Bily Clock Museum. Nearly 10,000 people come annually to see the 40 wooden clocks carved from 1913 to 1958 by brothers Frank and Joseph Bily.
The Bily Clock Museum houses a collection that reveals a level of skill, and an awareness of the world, that is remarkable for two men with no training in art and an education that ended at the fifth grade. There is poignancy in their devotion to travel and adventure: clocks pay homage to pioneers and Native Americans, to Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and to the history of travel. Yet the Bily brothers never traveled farther than 35 miles from home.
Frank and Joseph lived with their Bohemian-born parents and two siblings outside of town, where they farmed and did occasional carpentry. Their father thought carving was a waste of time when farm chores were waiting, so Frank and Joseph made clocks in the winter. They started in order to cheer their disabled brother, who they noticed brightened when they Joseph and Frank Bily
helped a neighbor install the mechanism for a clock with chimes.
For the Bily brothers, clocks were a team enterprise. Frank was the master carver, while Joseph drew up plans and assembled the pieces. Their clocks incorporate a mélange of woods: early on they combined imported woods like white holly and European black cherry while later clocks are an amalgam of native Iowa woods, including black walnut, ash, and butternut. The brothers used simple, often handmade, tools. In 1920, they modified their mother’s treadle sewing machine, without her permission, to make a scroll saw for cutting delicate fretwork.
Fortunately, their mother was a strong advocate of their carving.
Details of the History of Travel Clock
The brothers spent hours researching themes for their clocks, which depict topics ranging from religion to architecture to current events. Though the boys’ education ended early, they were avid readers and their mother subscribed to The New York Times, The Chicago-Sun Times, and The Des Moines Register. While images like Father Time and the world appear repeatedly, the clocks also commemorate an array of world citizens, including Quaker activist Elizabeth Fry, philosopher Emanuel Kant, and playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Frank and Joesph used chimes and music boxes to enliven their constructions, and carried to a delightful extreme the clock-making tradition of incorporating moveable parts. Amidst the clocks’ carved panels are a Native American who raises an arm, Spillville’s village band, and The Seven Stages of Man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who circulate atop the Parade of Nations Clock while music plays. Many clocks include exquisite detail: close inspection reveals buttons with stitching, creased pants, and the weave of the straw hat on the wooden farmer in the Village Blacksmith Shop Clock.
Details of the Village Blacksmith and Paradise Clocks
As the brother’s skills increased, their fame spread. Automaker Henry Ford, who had an affinity for clocks and music boxes, in 1928 offered the brothers $1 million for their American Pioneer History Clock. Four years in the making, the clock is over eight feet high and weighs more than 500 pounds. Scenes on the clock range from Sacajawea leading Lewis and Clark to the Pacific to the battle of Tippecanoe. When
the clock strikes the hour, figures representing the Four Ages of Life emerge from behind a panel depicting the Mayflower. The brothers reportedly said that if anyone wanted to see the clock, they could come to Spillville — they wouldn’t sell to Henry Ford.
By the late 1920s, Frank and Joseph moved the clocks from their home to a barn and charged visitors 10 cents to view them. None of the four Bily children ever married and they raised the money to support their beloved, but shy and unworldly sister Anna, who they imagined would outlive them. Thousands of people drove the rutted, muddy road for a look at the clocks and Anna stored the admission fees in tobacco cans. In the end, Frank and Joseph outlived Anna and when they sold the house, the new owners added electricity. In the attic they found the tobacco tins stuffed with money. Anna had never used it.
The Bily brothers moved the clocks to town in 1946 and ultimately gave them to Spillville, with the provision that the collection never be divided or sold. The building containing the clocks is the same one that housed DvoÅ™ák in 1893. Docents lead visitors around the clock-filled room, engaging the chimes and music boxes and sharing stories embroidered by Bily legends and the passing of time. The brothers, who carved images of the world from the sanctuary of their rural workshop, now attract visitors from around the globe and keep the tiny town of Spillville on the map.
All photos by Linzee McCray.
About the author: A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, Fiberarts, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.