DeKalb’s historic clock celebrates 100 years

DeKALB – The clock at Memorial Park in DeKalb, at the intersection of First Street and Lincoln Highway, is a longtime DeKalb landmark with 100 years of history. But not too many people know just how interesting its history is.

Facts most people wouldn’t know about the clock is that its official name is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Clock, its current location at Memorial Park is its fourth location, it was struck by lightning twice and has been hit by a truck and a car.

Through the years, the clock also has been renovated numerous times and currently is in need of repair.

To commemorate its 100th anniversary, which occurs the same year as the 100th anniversary of the clock’s dedication, the DeKalb Rotary Club is fundraising to renovate the clock. Although the clock itself is structurally sound, its mechanisms no longer work.

“The clock is seldom correct when it is working,” DeKalb Rotary Club President Brian Corr said. “Our goal is to raise the funds necessary to do the repairs. We will update the inside mechanisms of the clock with state-of-the art equipment. The clock will be illuminated, energy-efficient and self-correcting. From the outside, it will look just as it did in 1921, but it will be new inside.”

To raise the $5,000 to $10,000 needed to fix the clock, the DeKalb Rotary Club plans to have fundraisers throughout the year. To donate to the clock’s restoration, visit www.dekalbrotary.org and click on the clock fundraiser donation button.

“Everyone who passes the clock notices that it’s only right twice a day,” Corr said. “The clock is a DeKalb landmark. It stands next to the mural of Annie Glidden and the tank. The clock is a source of pride. It doesn’t reflect well on us as a community if our clock doesn’t work. Something has to be done. The clock has to be fixed.”

The clock’s history

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Clock was built in 1920 by E. Howard & Company of Boston. The clock is 19 feet high, weighs 4,000 pounds and has four faces. The base, column, shaft, neck and clock face cradle are all made of cast iron. The clock face assembly and hood assembly are made of sheet metal with a wood subframe. The decorative scrolls at the neck, the spear tips and shields are all cast in bronze.

The large base of the memorial clock was made to hold two plaques listing all the names of the men from DeKalb County who died in World War I, but the plaques were never completed or put in place.

Original efforts to raise money to buy the memorial clock were made by an organization known as the DeKalb County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Society in late 1919. In January 1920, the society abandoned its name and started fundraising as The Memorial Clock Committee. The committee was able to reach its goal with the help of the city of DeKalb donating the remainder of the money required to buy the clock.

The clock’s dedication was Feb. 13, 1921, at the First Methodist Church in DeKalb. Several hundred people crowded into the church with about 500 more being turned away because of lack of space. After a patriotic address by guest speaker Harry F. Atwood, author and former U.S. district attorney from Chicago, the ceremony was moved to the intersection of Third Street and Lincoln Highway for the clock’s official unveiling. The clock was presented to DeKalb American Legion Post 66.

In late 1921, the American Legion turned the clock’s ownership and care over to the city of DeKalb. Wesley Concidine, who was a sergeant in the DeKalb Police Department for many years, was named official custodian of the clock. Concidine worked for two days to repair the clock after it was struck by a tea company truck. He maintained the clock until his death in 1945.

On May 28, 1929, 5-year-old Margaret Benson was riding home from school in a neighbor’s car when was hit by a second car. The car smashed into the clock, and Benson received a skull fracture, a deep gash on the forehead, another cut on the side of her head and a cut wrist, hospitalizing her for two weeks. It was reported that after receiving the news of her daughter’s accident, her mother had a nervous breakdown and also had to be hospitalized.

The day after the accident involving Margaret Benson, the DeKalb City Council made a decision to move the clock immediately. The clock was moved about a half block west on Lincoln Highway and placed on the sidewalk in front of 237 E. Lincoln Highway. The clock remained there until 1974, when it was moved a few yards farther west, between 251 and 255 E. Lincoln Highway, to make room for new streetlights. The clock stood at that location until June 28, 1996, when it was taken apart and moved so that the restoration and moving of the clock could begin.

World War II veteran Donald Schoo joined the DeKalb Police Department in 1947, and one of his duties was to wind the clock once a week, using a key similar to one for a jail cell lock. There was only one clock key, and after the city electrified the clock, the key was retired. No one knows where it is today.

Through the years, the clock had become poorly maintained. It had numerous paint schemes, including a patriotic red, white and blue, and then plain white with colored shields around the clock faces.

Once approval by the city was given, a committee was formed, and a fundraising campaign to renovate and move the clock began in 1992.

Stephen Bigolin, the chairman of the 1996 DeKalb Landmark Commission, said that the idea for restoring DeKalb’s clock came in the early 1990s, when the village of Waterman raised $13,700 to restore its 1919 Wiltberger Memorial Clock, also made by E. Howard & Company.

A total of $17,000, including $6,000 from the city, was raised to move and restore DeKalb’s clock.

Margaret Benson Diedrich of San Francisco sent a donation along with a letter stating she was “no longer angry at the clock.” She was the 5-year old girl injured in the car accident involving the clock in 1929. Another donation came from Gerald E. Concidine, son of Wesley Concidine, the DeKalb policeman and custodian of the clock from 1921 to 1945.

The restored Veterans’ Memorial Clock stands at the corner of First Street and Lincoln Highway in Memorial Park, dedicated on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1996. Memorial Park also includes limestone fragments salvaged from the 1906 DeKalb Post Office, “Donna” the tank, and the mural “Its Merits Recommend It” painted by the Northern Illinois Art Museum in 1999.

“A lot of people don’t know the history of the clock, but everyone in town knows of the clock,” Bigolin said. “Although the clock hasn’t worked very well in the past few years, it is quite historic. It really is a DeKalb landmark. It’s rather amazing that it’s survived 100 years.”

• History and photographs of the clock compiled with the help of The Joiner History Room and Stephen Bigolin.

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.