Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith Daniel Jeffries, the timekeeper for the clock tower at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, oils gears on the clock movement, the mechanism that keeps it ticking.
COVINGTON - As a child, Daniel Jeffries was fascinated by a mantle clock owned by his grandfather. He'd sit and stare at the pendulum swinging back and forth and loved to hear the chime every 15 minutes.
He wondered just how that clock worked. So at age 7, having saved up $35 -- "I had to do a lot of chores" -- he bought an antique parlor clock at a yard sale and promptly dismantled it, to his mother's dismay. His father helped him put it back together.
"Ever since then, it has been an obsession," he said.
Jeffries loves clocks. He likes to take them apart, put them together, restore them, repair them.
"We're all plagued by one thing: time," he said. "It's ticking away every second."
Every person has a choice of what to do with that time. Jeffries just wants to make sure the clocks they track it by are accurate. In Covington, the townsfolk have long relied on the focal point of the downtown Square, the Newton County Historic Courthouse clock tower.
"I call it Newton County's most faithful employee," Jeffries said of the nearly 130-year-old timepiece. But, like most employees, the clock isn't perfect. "Sometimes it's a little late, and sometimes it's a little early."
That's where Jeffries comes in. He is the clock's official timekeeper. You'd be surprised how many people still rely on the clock to schedule their days, he said.
"People wake up to it, they go to the beauty parlor by it. They listen for it," he said, noting that if the clock is more than a few minutes off, the county is flooded with calls.
So Jeffries takes his job seriously. Every one to two weeks, he climbs the steps to the upper levels of the courthouse and checks the accuracy of the clock. The mechanical brain, what Jeffries calls the "clock movement," is located in a tiny room resembling an outhouse. It's there that Jeffries does his time check. He keeps his watch set by an atomic clock in Colorado with accuracy of one one-thousandth of a second.
Jeffries waits for the clock tower bell to chime at the top of the hour. He gauges its accuracy from the first strike, counting by the second to see how far it's off from his watch. He then adjusts the escapement, the time-keeping mechanism that makes the tick-tock sound.
On Wednesday, the clock was a little fast, a rarity. Usually, it loses a minute or two over the course of a couple of weeks. Anything from rain to wind to a bird sitting on a clock hand can throw it off.
"It's an outdoor clock that's at the mercy of anything Mother Nature can throw at it," Jeffries said.
The clock winds itself every five minutes, a much simpler solution to what was required in the olden days, when a large weight and pulley system had to be hand-cranked once a week. The time-keeping weights on one side were between 200 and 300 pounds, and the ones that controlled the bell were even heavier, around 700 pounds.
Jeffries makes sure the four faces on the clock match each other. It's a pet peeve of his to see clock towers where the time is different on each face.
He also keeps the gears oiled, along with the bell hammer, so it "strikes a nice and deep tone."
Jeffries doesn't charge the county for his services.
"I do it for free because I love to do it. This is my hometown clock," he said.
When he became the timekeeper in 2008, the clock was often inaccurate, frequently stopping altogether, and some of the motion works were rusted. Noting that the county spent a lot of money to restore the clock movement in 2003, Jeffries said he tries to keep it in tip-top shape. He drives through the Square on his way home from work most days to make sure it's working properly.
Jeffries keeps a full-time job as an accountant, and also owns a clock repair business, Dee's Clock Works. He is self-taught, having first watched a clock repair video at around age 10.
A member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Jeffries is also the timekeeper for clock towers in Jasper and Butts counties, as well as restorer of what he says is the oldest functioning clock tower in the country at St. Michael's Church in Charleston, S.C., which dates back to 1764. He's even got a clock tower at his barn near Jackson Lake.
"My goal is to see every tower clock in the state," he said. So far, he's viewed 12 of the 87 remaining.
Aesthetically and sentimentally, he favors Newton's. In 1885, when the local clock tower was crafted, a home clock was an extravagance, Jeffries said. The community relied on the clock for alerts to when it was time for meals, time to leave for church, time to stop work for the day. Time was minded, but there was less of an obsession with it, he said, noting that people would start heading to their intended location when they heard the first chime, meaning they weren't arriving on the hour. Jeffries said he's not fascinated by time itself, just the nuts and bolts of clockworks. But he gets philosophical about it nonetheless.
"The more efficient we get, the more wasteful we get," he said. "We never have enough time. We get more efficient so we can have more time, then we waste what we've got. We're always in a rush."
While keeping up with the time has become a societal obsession, telling time is a skill that is falling by the wayside. When Jeffries speaks to school groups on field trips to the courthouse, "I am shocked at how many kids have a hard time reading time by a mechanical clock. They're so used to cellphones and digital clocks," he said.
To Jeffries, a clock simply isn't a clock if there's no tick-tock. Without that, he said, "Your home doesn't have a heartbeat."