Keeping time with history: 'The clocks that saved a village' still have stories to tell

December 4, 2017 10:19:12 AM

Jan Swoope - jswoope@cdispatch.com

 

Ella Benton fell in love in Paris in 2015. Not with her husband, in this particular reference, but with a clock. A curvaceous, charming thing she came across in a dusty, antique shop. The shapely creation seemed somehow very French. To Benton's surprise, her find was a Swedish-made treasure -- a Mora clock -- and she became enthralled by the history. 

 

"I call these the clocks that saved a village," said Benton, who moved to Columbus this past summer when her husband, Lt. Col. Brian Benton, was assigned at Columbus Air Force Base.  

 

In the mid-1700s, when agriculture and mining industries in the small Swedish town of Mora fell on hard times, the townspeople came together in hopes of finding a way to survive. Legend has it they held a town meeting, Benton said. 

 

"As they talked they realized that they had several families that were very good woodworkers, and other families that were painters by trade, and still others who knew how to build clock workings." By pooling their talents, they created the first Mora clock. "This one-of-a-kind piece of art sold immediately, and this began a cottage industry for the village." 

 

It is said that by 1800, about 100 families were involved in the town's enterprise. Estimates are that, at peak production, as many as 1,000 clocks were being made annually over a period of 80 years.  

 

"I've had a love affair with these clocks that have such a unique and amazing story," said Benton, walking from one 100- to 300-year-old clock to the next on display at the Shops at Brickerton in Columbus. "After I saw that first one in Paris, when we were stationed in Germany, it snowballed from there."  

 

While living in Europe, where travel between countries is relatively quick and inexpensive, Benton concentrated on locating Mora and other Swedish longcase clocks. She acquired 80, which have recently arrived in America and are available for purchase. To Benton's knowledge, it is the largest collection of Swedish longcase clocks currently in this country.  

 

"We went through barns, climbed into attics, went to people's homes," Benton said of her search. She vividly recalled one winter foray to a chateau built in the 1700s, with several barns on the property. "We began to pull these big, heavy barn doors open, and I still remember that feeling of wondering what treasure we might find behind them."  

 

 

 

Like people 

 

While Mora and similar clocks are generally based on the rounded figure eight shape, no two are exactly alike.  

 

"They're like people; they're every color and shape," said Benton, who admits to talking to her clocks, referring to them, naturally, as ladies. Often they were given as bridal gifts and handed down from generation to generation. Each is an individual, with its own personality and story.  

 

Many have clock faces inscribed with the artisan's name and village of origin. Some bear the year they were made. Carvings of wheat, laurel or grapes may carry the story of a family or town. A half-moon shaped design element may signify salt, that the family lived near the sea, Benton said. Taller clocks generally meant they were made for wealthier homes, with higher ceilings. More openings for glass could indicate the same, for glass was expensive.  

 

"It's like an excavation of history," said Benton, who thrills at the discovery of each detail.  

 

Benny Weeks understands Benton's fascination. He's been in the clock business for more than 25 years. Weeks maintains clocks at the Cullis and Gladys Wade Clock Museum at Mississippi State University and owns Ye Olde Clock Shoppe near French Camp.  

 

"These are very special clocks," he said of Benton's collection. "The initial making of these was from the love of the people, to do something (to save their town). They worked with their hands to build these clocks; they go above and beyond as far as specialty of clocks." 

 

 

 

In broad terms 

 

Every original Mora clock handmade by a craftsman or cooperative exhibits subtle, and sometimes dramatic, differences. In general, however, styles are described online as Country, Fryksdall, Bridal and City by Jo Lee of Swedish Interior Design in London.  

 

Country clocks are usually plainer and more simply decorated. Rare Fryksdall clocks have a pinched waist, expanded belly and extravagant hood crowns. They would have been found in the homes of aristocracy and landed gentry. Bridal style clocks have the finest and most exuberant level of decoration, applied carvings and paint effects. City style is a catch-all phrase to describe clocks with a level of decorative carving or finish that sets them apart from country clocks. 

 

Benton made sure clocks she acquired had working mechanisms; she has weights and pendulums for them all. Weeks has the expertise to install them when they go to a new home. 

 

He said, "When I get a clock like that, that maybe hasn't run in a long time, when I first get that initial swing of that pendulum, things flow through my mind -- how many weddings, how many wars, how many Christmases and family gatherings has this clock seen?"  

 

Like Weeks, Benton has always been drawn to the history. She feels surrounded by it through the clocks and enjoys sharing it with others. 

 

"I think objects from history carry with them the memories and provenance of the people who first loved them. ... Each one is special. I think the 'love match' between clock and owner is a very personal one." 

 

Editor's note: The Swedish longcase clocks may be readily viewed by appointment by contacting Benton at 719-761-4012.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.