Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Is It That Time?

by Norris Chambers

   In the old days, in our section of the backwoods, time was not too important. However, it was important enough that most folks used some method of measuring it. If nothing else was available, the roosters started their announcements an hour or so before daylight, and that meant it was time to get up and get the milking and feeding done. When we sensed darkness approaching, it was time to do the night chores and have supper. When it got completely dark, it was time to go to bed. There wasn't much reading done at night because the old coal oil lamps didn't make enough light.

  The animals didn't need a clock. I reckon their stomachs told them it was time to eat, and that was all that was really important to them. The cows started a continuous "mooing" when milking time was near. The pigs squealed continuously until they got their nourishment. The horses did a little neighing when they felt that it would be noticed. The horses also knew when it was about time to quit plowing for dinner or supper. They would stop when we reached the end of the row closest to the house, and would be reluctant to begin another row. After coaxed into it, when we returned they stopped again.

  They went to work at a relatively slow pace, but when we started home, it wasn't easy keeping up with them. It was the same way with the horse that I rode to school - a slow gate going, but a runaway coming home in the afternoon.

  When I was hoeing I developed a foolproof way to know when it was time to come home for dinner. I discovered that a stick, a hoe handle or any other object cast a shadow, and when the shadow was exactly one third the length of the pole, when pointing directly upward, it was time to go eat. Of course the time varied a little from the beginning to the ending of the summer, but most of the cheating was in my favor.

  The stick timepiece soon led me to a low cost sun dial. This little instrument was round, about the size of a watch, and had tapered vane starting at the center and extending upward to the rim of the dial. There was a small compass located in the bottom section of the dial, about where the second had would be on a watch. The compass was used to position the dial exactly north and south and the dial was rotated to the month.. The vane cast a shadow to the time, and it was read on the scale for your time zone. This instrument was very accurate. There was one problem. It would not work on a cloudy day. But in our part of the world there were not many cloudy days in the summer, so it worked very well.

  For between fifty cents and a dollar, we could buy a dollar watch. They called them dollar watches because that was the usual price. These watches were "pocket watches" since wrist watches were unknown to us in the early years. They did begin to get popular in the early thirties. The best known brand of pocket watch was a Westclock or Westclox. They were the most expensive of the dollar watches, and some sold for as much as two dollars. The Ingram was a cheaper brand. These watches did not have any jewels but they would last for years even if you dropped them a few times.

  There were alarm clocks for those who didn't have roosters. They were big round things with winding keys on the back for the time and alarm. You could set the alarm with a little dial near the top of the face and a knob on the back to turn the pointer. They made a hateful sound early in the morning, but were very effective. Most of these small clocks had regular faces and hands to indicate the time, but some had a circular band with the hours of the day and night printed on it that rotated past a pointer. The pointer indicated the time. This was the first real digital clock! These little table clocks sold for about the same price as the pocket watches.

  When wrist watches became generally available, they sold for $1.50 to $10.00 for the cheaper variety. Some in the upper end of this bracket had three or seven jewels in the escapement mechanism. The jeweled watches kept better time and lasted longer if they were not abused. They were more fragile since the glass jewels broke easily. Seventeen jewel watches cost from ten to twenty dollars and were the cadillacs of the watch group. They used glass jewels, or bearings, for all of the faster moving wheels. Watches were available that used jewels in all bearing areas but they were so expensive that country folks didn't usually consider them. Train crews had very accurate watches that were checked regularly by watchmakers. It was important that they be correct. But the average country person didn't know about these high priced time pieces.

  Most farm families, including ours, had a big mantle clock. These had a face about six inches in diameter and a pendulum that went back and forth as it ticked. They were about twelve inches in diameter and eighteen inches to two feet in height. They were housed in wooden cabinets that were varnished and highly decorated. Most of them didn't have an alarm, but practically all of them would strike out the hour and half hour. They were popular because those who woke up during the night could listen for the clock to strike and know how far they were from getting up time. They were called mantle clocks because they were usually placed on the mantle shelf above the fireplace.

  The ceilings were so low in our log house that a mantle clock would not sit on the shelf because there wasn't enough room between the mantle and the ceiling. Papa solved this problem easily by sawing off about two inches of the decorative molding around the top of the case. My mother told him he could have cut a small hole in the ceiling. But the sawed off clock worked fine. The only trouble with that type of clock, you had to remember to wind it regularly. It would run a little fast when first wound and would slow down as the spring unwound. If you forgot to wind it you had to wind it and reset it and the striking mechanism. No radio was available to get the correct time, so some standard was necessary. In this case it was the sun.

  Almost everyone had a farmer's almanac that told what time the sun rose and set, the signs of the moon, when to plant different crops, how to figure acreage, formulas for weights, measures, etc. The almanac was a very valuable reference. All the clock setter had to do was wait for the sun to rise or set and set the clock accordingly. Of course, like the sun dial, this did not work on a cloudy day. In that case, you just made a guess and waited for a clear day.

  Actually, how important was the correct time in our environment. Not very. Of course school started at nine o'clock in the morning and dismissed at four in the afternoon. Most teachers had a watch or small clock and they used these to start classes and schedule recess and lunch. The last school I attended even had a wall clock in the study hall, and it was the standard for setting all watches.

  School was about the only thing that required a reasonably accurate time. Even this time could be determined pretty well by guess work and experience. Many students were early and a few were late, but unless the tardiness was extreme or frequent, it was not a big deal.

  When radios began to come to the country in the early thirties, time became more important. You had to hear the five o'clock news in the morning, and had to hear Lum and Abner at 6:30 in the afternoon. You couldn't miss W. Lee O'Daniel at 12:30 or the Bewley Chuck Wagon Gang at 1:00.

  We have split second timing now and it is important to us. Anyone with a cheap short wave radio can set his digital watch with the U.S. Bureau of Standards station and have time that is correct to the second. But the moral of this story is (if it has one) that there was a good quality of life in an era when time wasn't that important. A few of we old timers lived in that period, but I'm not sure we would like to return. We just don't have time!


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