Steven Draher is a risk taker on the wild side of history.
For the past two and a half years, he has been one of a handful of men who climbs up the nearly six flights of tall, skinny stairs and dutifully maintains the clock in the clock tower of the old City Hall building, now home of the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum.
It is a volunteer job that induces vertigo while giving a nod to the past and the brilliance of low-tech mechanics.
But it’s scary up there. Draher remembers the time he and John Richardson had to climb out onto the tower to repair a broken hand on the north face of the clock.
“I had to reach out and hang outside and get the dial, and it was just like in one of those old silent movies,” said Draher, a 53-year-old aircraft mechanic.
The view, though, is great.
“You can see all across the city,” he said.
It is a job that has been passed down from one clock mechanic to another. The man who taught Draher was Richardson, a fellow of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and a longtime volunteer at several Wichita museums. Richardson died earlier this month.
The payoff for clock mechanics is a tradition that began when the clock was installed in 1917: Each one has signed his name on the clock’s bell.
The clock’s history
In the late 1880s when the building was constructed, it was designed to be a showcase. But the economy plunged just as the finishing touches were being placed in the building, and there were no funds left for a clock in the tower.
For years, the tower sat with the empty holes where a clock might go. In 1916, The Wichita Eagle and insurance dealer Austin Stone, along with other citizens, led the effort to install a clock.
“The clock space in the tower covered with boards has for years presented an unsightly appearance,” The Eagle reported on Nov. 9, 1916. “As a matter of civic pride and also to protect the building, citizens have petitioned for a clock and repairs. Water runs through the openings of the tower and floods the corridors of the building when it rains hard.”
In April 1917, a 5,000-pound Seth Thomas clock was installed. The clock cost $1,590, $600 more than originally planned, because a stairway had to be constructed for the clock’s maintenance workers. A silencer also was installed to keep the bell from tolling between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
More than nine decades later, the clock is still ticking.
It did take a brief hiatus when on June 22, 1981, lightning struck the tower, damaging the clock and the tower’s peaked roof. Nearly 18 months later, the clock was restored and started running again.
Draher, along with Ian Grindlay, now helps supervise maintenance on the clock.
“You have to have backup people for safety issues,” Draher said. “We can’t go up by ourselves.”
Every three to six months, the clock’s driveshaft, joints, gears and gimbals are lubed. The tower is swept to keep the dust down.
The clock’s movement is the size of a shopping cart; the gears are the size of cantaloupes.
Like Richardson, Draher is a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and the Wichita Sunflower Clock Watchers, Chapter 63.
The group is looking for new members; the craft is dying and Draher hopes there will be interest in keeping it alive.
Anyone not afraid of heights and blessed with good knees is welcome.
“The old technology is as accurate as the new stuff,” Draher said. “I like working on it because of the size.
“I hope people will still feel the need to learn it. There is so much heritage in keeping the clock going.”