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  • Writer's pictureKaren Terhune Duncan

Keeping Time

The art of clock making was practically full grown when it reached America. The first patriots in this craft hung out their signs for business in Boston in 1683; it was more than half a century later before others were working in New Jersey. By that time the colonies were in the era during which “time tall” (grandfather) clocks were the generally accepted instruments for measuring time.

Graceful grandfather clocks in their mahogany and cherry cases have been produced by Jerseymen for centuries. A finely made tall clock, with an iron dial bearing the name of William Dawes, has been in my family for eight generations. It was made in 1792 by William P. Dawes of Elizabethtown, NJ (what is now Elizabeth). Not to be confused with another William Dawes who famously rode with Paul Revere, the two men shared a name, and lived in the same time in American history. But that is where their similarities end. New Jersey’s William Dawes, born in England, was a silversmith and gradually turned his talents to clock making.

First owned by my great, great, great, great, great grandfather Cornelius Terhune, he had the clock made for a home he purchased near Hackensack. It has remained a prized possession in our family, passed from son to son. It currently resides in my brother’s Simi Valley, California home having made its first out-of-New Jersey-state journey thirty years ago to Colorado with our father.

The first four owners of our family clock. Left to right: Cornelius Terhune 1761-1853; Jacob Cornelius Terhune 1791-1882; John Van Hoorhes Terhune 1811-1894; Jacob John Terhune 1836-1899.

The next two generations to own the clock are, left to right: My great-grandfather Peter Christie Terhune I (1870- 1954), and as a boy; my grandfather Ralph Demarest Terhune (1901-1983), and as a boy.

As I child I vividly remember my grandfather adjusting its massive chains, and the clear sound of its chimes, every fifteen minutes announcing the advancing hours. It would take some getting used to for sleeping, but its sound was as comforting as it was imperial. He kept detailed notes of who had owned it, sharing the stories of how it was carried up flights of stairs, or dismantled for cleaning.

Our family grandfather clock in my grandparent's Ridgewood, New Jersey home, 1965.

It is difficult to arbitrarily place any Jersey clockmaker in the forefront as master of his craft, because each of them has left behind excellent examples, however Aaron Miller might be regarded as the finest. He trained his son who had only daughters. How fitting that his daughter, Sarah Miller, would marry the clockmaker, William Dawes.

During the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries there were dozens of quality New Jersey shops selling handmade clocks. After 1825 the popularity of the grandfather type began to wane, and the mantel clock, and also the banjo clock, found favor with Jerseymen. Instead of following the trend of the times, most of the native clockmakers turned more and more to the jewelry business. They kept shops that offered trinkets and a variety of other wares, including the smaller shelf and wall clocks, which were turned out in ever-increasing numbers. While there are many fine specimens of American made clocks, the grandfather stands the proudest and most famous.

Left to right (1972) my father Ralph Christie Terhune, my grandfather Ralph Demarest Terhune, and my brothers Peter Christie Terhune II, Scott Johnson Terhune, Stephen Guy Terhune.

After my father, Ralph Christie Terhune, inherited the clock in 1993, it was shipped to their retirement home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It had a nice view of the mountains.

In 1999 my father moved the clock to their next home in Palm Desert, California where it remained until his death in 2014.

Today, the owner is my brother Steve. The clock is going strong in his Simi Valley, California home. He is the 8th owner of our family clock, as the plaque inside the cabinet attests. (The painting on the wall near my father depicts the Dutch arriving in New Amsterdam, NY in the late 1600s. It now hangs on Steve's wall, next to the clock. Steve retains our family membership in the Holland Society of New York. Our ancestors began arriving to America from Holland in 1638.)

Our family clock is nearly 230 years old. It has a Federal inlaid mahogany tall case clock, with spire brass finials, arched glazed door and a painted face. It is in magnificent condition, keeping perfect time, because of the many members of my family who have treasured it.

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