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Tick-tock: Daylight saving time means more work for clock keepers

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Brian Charlson looks over his surroundings Thursday in the tower at the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo after changing the clock for daylight saving time. David Samson / The Forum2 / 5
Brian Charlson turns the gears to change the time on the clock at the Cass County Courthouse. David Samson / The Forum3 / 5
Mark Schutz sets the time on a 1908 Sessions Mission floor clock at The Clockwerks in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum 4 / 5
Tom Smith shows how to reset the clocks in the tower of the Great Northern Bicycle Co. building in downtown Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum 5 / 5

FARGO - Brian Charlson takes the elevator to the third floor of the Cass County Courthouse and crosses the marble floor to a judge’s chambers where, down the hall past shelves of law books, there’s a nondescript door.

On the other side, a muscle-burning climb begins.

GRAPHIC: How much daylight do we get?

Charlson, a member of the county’s building and grounds crew, hikes up 76 steps, passing through two dusty hatches, to reach the top of the courthouse clock tower.

“They put all the screens up to keep the pigeons out,” he said as a cold wind rushed through an open section of the tower adorning the courthouse that opened in 1906.

His mission, like that of other clock keepers this time of year, was to set the clock forward an hour in accordance with daylight saving time, which started at 2 a.m. today.

Charlson reset the four faces of the courthouse clock on Thursday morning – a job done in advance to make sure the old clock still works after the time is changed. The air temperature was 7 degrees, so he moved quickly.

He unplugged an electric motor that powers the clock, took out a pin in the mechanism and, with both hands, grabbed the gears, which squealed as he leaned his back into turning them.

After a few minutes, Charlson was done, and he headed back down the rattling metal staircase.

“It’s too bad it’s not nice out because this is a really, really nice place to be,” he said as clouds of steam puffed from the city’s rooftops.

‘Telling the time’

Another analog timepiece decorating Fargo’s skyline is the clock tower at the former train station that’s now the Great Northern Bicycle Company.

The bike shop’s co-owner, Tom Smith, said he planned to set the clock ahead this morning – a duty he takes seriously.

“It’s kind of fun to have that responsibility to the townspeople, to be providing them with their clock,” he said, acknowledging that locals may rely on his clock less now that so many of them have cellphones in their pockets.

Last week, Smith gave a demonstration of his twice-yearly ritual, making his way up a spiral staircase and then up two steep sets of wooden stairs. Eventually, he reached a space where dead bugs littered the floor and sunlight filtered through four translucent clock faces, each 8 feet in diameter.

“There’s been a number of senior pictures taken in there,” he said. “It’s perfect ambient light.”

The 70-foot-tall brick tower was built in 1906. It originally contained a clock that had to be wound every eight days, but now an electric motor turns the hands, Smith said, noting that bicycle lube keeps the gears turning smoothly.

“Each of the four clock faces is connected to the main controller with about a 10-foot-long rod,” said Smith, who stood at the center of the tower and spun the hands of one clock to show how he changes the time. “One of the hardest things is telling the time backwards.”

‘Raw fingers’

In downtown Grand Forks, the job of changing the time on the clock tower of the Herald building falls to facilities manager Joe Seyler.

The building opened in 1998, so the clock is programmed to adjust for daylight saving time, but the problem is that it falls back and springs forward on the wrong dates, Seyler said.

That’s because in 2007, by an act of Congress, daylight saving time was extended, and the start and end dates changed.

This confused the Herald’s clock, which Seyler isn’t able to reprogram. So now he has to manually reset the clock four times a year to correct for the old and new dates of daylight saving time.

Luckily, Seyler can change the time in just three or four minutes using a digital display board in the clock tower.

“I just punch in what I want, and then I hit go,” he said.

At the Watch Company in Fargo’s West Acres mall, workers have a more time-consuming task. Peter Lavelle, the store manager, said he and his co-workers spent the past week gradually resetting at least 200 wristwatches.

Lavelle said the process of pulling out the stem of each watch and winding it forward an hour goes by fast but can be taxing. “You kind of get … raw fingers from the grips on the crown,” he said.

Though, not all the store’s watches need to be reset. Some of the pricier ones have radio-controlled atomic timekeeping or are synchronized to satellites, Lavelle said.

Clockwerks, the clock sales and repair shop at 1101 1st Ave. S., has just one radio-controlled clock; the rest of the roughly 400 clocks on the showroom floor have to be reset by hand, said owner Mark Schutz.

Schutz said he and an employee would reset the shop’s electric clocks this weekend and would wind some of the grandfather clocks but not all of them.

“We don’t wind them all the time,” he said. “It would be a full-time job just to try and keep them up.”

Schutz, who can reset 100 clocks in about 2½ hours, said the chore leaves him “sick and tired of setting clocks.”

However, he takes solace in the time change itself.

“I love daylight savings time. I wish they’d quit turning it back,” he said. “You get done with work at the end of the day, and it’s not going dark and freezing.”