Imagine Northeast Iowa

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Turning the Clocks Back in Time in Spillville
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Turning the Clocks Back in Time in Spillville

As we turn back our clocks this upcoming Saturday evening November 2nd, it’s a good time to wind back a bit ourselves as the fall weather has a chill in the air and take in some historic grand timepieces in Northeast Iowa, like The Bily Clocks in Spillville. This may even get you pondering about the huge job of turning back all the clocks at the museum as you go about setting your microwave, DVD, alarm clock, car clock and other clocks. Having worked there, I can tell you about that. First of all, all of the expertly carved clocks run and most do play music---but no, they are not all set at the correct time because it would be way too noisy if all the clocks when off on the hour at the same time while giving tours!

 May through October the museum is open daily from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. and Sundays 12 – 4. April and November they are open Saturdays only from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. and closed December, January, February and March, so hurry up and plan your fall adventure at the world famous Bily Clocks.

 What’s the thrill? Amazingly, these talented men, with only a fifth grade education and a hankering for beer, were offered a million dollars for just one clock by Henry Ford, but they turned them down. That’s a lot of dough, especially in those days!

 Some of the clocks stand nine feet all, and called a “gem” in the AAA travel book saying the clocks portray history, art, religion and culture and are covered with hundreds of expertly carved figures.

 They began woodcarving as adults during their off hours and it was said they did get some criticism from their father who believed only in hard manual labor to get ahead in this world. The clocks website had this to say, “Beginning in 1913 and over the course of 45 years, brothers Joseph and Frank Bily spent their spare time carving intricate clocks, some close to 10 feet tall, with themes ranging from art and religion to history and culture. Forty-three curious clocks are now on display at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, Iowa, where the collection includes a giant American Pioneer History Clock, an Apostle Clock, a clock honoring Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight and a violin-shaped clock made to honor Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville.”

 The Bily Clocks Museum and the Antonin Dvorak Exhibit (which is housed upstairs) has been a favorite attraction and just with woodcarvers, as they discover our small Czech village and take in other notable sites like the St. Wenceslaus Church where Dvorak played the organ while he visited in 1893.

 Frank and Joseph Bily carved at their home farm between Ridgeway and Spillville only in the winter months as a hobby. Otherwise they were farmers and carpenters. They carved the intricate pieces and ordered the clock portion from a catalog, which they put in themselves. Their first large clock carved was the enchanting Apostle Clock from which the Twelve Apostles slowly stroll out on the hour in 1915 and 1916. This is something to see! They continued to add more masterpieces from 1923 to 1927, including The American Pioneer History Clock. In 1928 a memorial clock to Charles Lindbergh was carved commemorating his historic flight as they kept up with the news, but didn’t even see places they carved like The Little Brown Church in Nashua (the wedding party strolls out of the church) was carved from a postcard that was sent to them. As word got out, possibly from the mailman who delivered the large packages for the clocks such as wood from foreign countries, people began to line up in their automobiles to see the fine delicate work, so much so that the family began charging a dollar a vehicle to try discourage the flocks of people from coming, though it didn’t stop the flow of traffic. Then in 1946 the brothers moved their collection to town and bequeathed their masterpieces to the town of Spillville with the agreement that the clocks would never be sold or moved from their present location.

 They chose the building because the second floor had been were the famous Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, and his family during lived during the summer of 1893.

 These talented brothers could have had some of their clocks displayed at the Smithsonian, but instead wanted the clocks to stay together in their hometown. While working at the museum, this writer had heard stories that some people had heard strange noises like footsteps, especially down the basement steps and possibly the smell of beer. It would be fitting that their spirits stayed with the clocks all these years as they put their heart and soul in their work. I can almost smell the beer mixed with a smell of varnish now.



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