Before 'S-Town' made him famous, clock lovers knew him well

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Before 'S-Town' made him famous, clock lovers knew him well
An exhibition at the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pa., displays John B. McLemore’s extensive clock restorations, March 11, 2024. More than 30 antique clocks, restored by McLemore, are in the show, along with three timekeeping and navigational instruments he made himself. (Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times)

by Bill Marsh

COLUMBIA, PA.- John B. McLemore, a profanely outspoken, brilliant and troubled restorer of antique clocks, emerged a national figure in 2017 with the podcast “S-Town.” As a horologist — a repairer of devices that measure time — he restored intricate and rare pieces in a workshop at his family homestead in rural western Alabama.

But that was just part of the story.

In short order, “S-Town” hit 40 million downloads, and has since surpassed 100 million, making it among the most downloaded podcasts.

For those who missed this unusual tale, there will be no major spoilers here. It’s enough to say that McLemore, and many in his orbit, were vaulted from obscurity to sometimes painful visibility.

(Tyler Goodson, a prominent character in the podcast, was killed in a police shootout in December. Jeff Dodson, mayor of Woodstock, the hamlet where “S-Town” takes place, said he hasn’t received an update on the police investigation of the shooting.)

Before “S-Town,” McLemore was known to collectors of rare clocks, earning fame as an unlikely genius who could diagnose mechanical trouble and revive one-of-a-kind antique timepieces.

One of those collectors, William R. Tatum, was close to “John B.,” as friends called him. Tatum — referred to only as Bill in the podcast — entrusted McLemore with many of his prized clocks. An exhibition of 34 of those pieces, all restored by McLemore, runs through April 30 at the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

“It’s really to showcase his uniqueness, his abilities, his talents,” Tatum said of the exhibition. “He could fix anything. He could do anything. He worked on my dishwasher, my washer and clothes dryer, he worked on my truck, he worked on my car.” But those were mere distractions. “Clocks were what made him tick, no pun intended.”

In the series “S-Town” (its title is an abbreviation of McLemore’s derisive nickname for Woodstock), listeners hear the musings, longings and rantings of a man captivated by science, vexed by climate change, chagrined by local social norms and frustrated at love.

“He was too smart for that county in Alabama, and that’s what made him feel isolated,” Tatum said. “He was too smart for most of those people. He had nobody to relate to. He knew I was educated, and we became friends.”

Last fall, Tatum drove from Alabama with two others who were featured in the podcast, Cheryl Dodson and her husband, Jeff, Woodstock’s mayor, to see the show and recall their friend’s quirky talents.

But you don’t have to listen to McLemore’s story to find things of interest elsewhere in the museum. A tour begins with the sound of iron gears clanking together in a room full of muscular tower clock mechanisms. Hundreds of clocks and watches trace the science and artistry of timekeeping.

On the day of Tatum’s visit, a group of schoolchildren sat rapt for a demonstration of the Engle Monumental Clock, a 19th-century contraption that resembles a cross between a castle and a cathedral. As the docent turned the minute hand, its arrival at various points on the dial set off whirring processions of historical and allegorical characters, 46 in total. When the minute hand reached 12, a thighbone-wielding skeleton, representing death, struck a skull to count the hour — a vivid reminder that we all have one less hour to live.

A dedicated collector, Tatum found many unusual clocks needing repair. These are some of his favorite John B. stories.

Lighthouse Mantel Clock (French, ca. 1880)

A simulated lantern atop this lighthouse-style clock oscillates between green, clear and red glass. The case has a bright, two-tone gilt finish. “When he handed the clocks back to me, they looked like they just came from the factory,” Tatum said.

The pre-McLemore lighthouse was missing its crowning detail. “He made that little flag, and he said he made that when he was stoned,” Tatum recalled. But, Tatum added, “he hand-filed it, and whatever state of mind he was in, he made it correct. He always made it correct.”

Paris Fountain Clock and Barometer (French, ca. 1890)

This miniature likeness of stately fountains that offered drinking water to 19th-century Parisians was purchased by Tatum “as is”: a monochrome brass, its original finish gone.

McLemore added flourish to its four female figures, a dark patina to make them stand out. “If it was all just gold-plated, it wouldn’t have any character,” Tatum said, noting that McLemore would conduct extensive research before making aesthetic choices.

The clock features a spinning rod of twisted glass that mimics flowing water, via a second mechanism. Clocks with animated features were challenging to repair but emerged from the McLemore workshop alive again. “He wouldn’t have given it back to me if he couldn’t make it work,” Tatum said.

Floating Turtle Clock (French, ca. 1900)

This remarkable table clock announces the hour via a floating turtle in a pewter bowl: Fill it with water, drop in the turtle and, presto, the animal glides to one of the numerals around the pan’s rim. “He’s going to float to whatever time it is,” Tatum said. “It never disappoints you.”

The turtle is pulled to the correct time by a magnet hidden beneath the bowl.

“When I bought that clock, it did not have the right turtle,” he said. “It was too heavy to float.” Another friend carved a lighter specimen. The finishing touch: “John B. took a magnet off his refrigerator and inserted that into the turtle.”

A rare misstep also left its mark. After McLemore fixed the clock, he tested a new, lighter turtle. “We didn’t know there was a leak in the bottom of the pan,” Tatum recalled. “He filled it up, went to bed, and came back to the shop and there was water on the movement,” Tatum explained, referring to the clockwork mechanism. “Wasn’t expecting that! Parts of it are a little rusted because of that escapade.”

McLemore patched the hole and persuaded his customer to live with the rust. “He was of the mindset that if something’s not broken, it’s better to leave it alone,” Tatum said.

Sedan Chair Carriage Clock (French, ca. 1900)

One of the podcast’s mysteries: Did McLemore’s use of mercury poison him?

He liked bygone techniques, notably fire gilding, in which gold and mercury are combined; the mix is torched to vaporize the mercury, leaving only a gold finish. McLemore scarcely protected himself from the ensuing fumes.

For most of Tatum’s clocks, McLemore used electroplating, a process involving dangerous materials. Metal is refinished in a solution that is part toxic potassium cyanide. This method may not produce fumes, but the vats used would contain extremely hazardous chemicals.

Several such brews were required to refinish this fanciful miniature sedan chair. It was a uniform brass tone when Tatum bought it, and he calls its restoration “the crowning jewel of John B.’s work.”

McLemore spent weeks masking off portions of the clock’s motifs by applying a lacquer seal. When plated in the cyanide mixture, the exposed, unlacquered sections acquired their intended finish. Then the lacquer is removed, applied to different sections and placed in a new cyanide mixture. The process is repeated several times until all the finishes are applied.

The replated details glimmer in pure and tinted golds and silvers, the result of tedious work. Upon finishing the clock, McLemore said: “Tatum, I’ll never do that again.”

Musical Singing Birdcage Automaton (French, ca. 1880)

This Victorian novelty exists strictly to entertain. Wind it up and three feathered birds spring to life while music plays for about 10 minutes. Tatum bought it “dead in the water,” its complex workings frozen. He knew that McLemore had tackled projects like this before.

After weeks of waiting, Tatum received the expected call from his friend, who declared matter-of-factly: “I got it working. Take it home. Put a dome on it.”

It was a familiar statement. “He would always say, ‘Ah, just put a glass dome over it.’ That was his way of saying, ‘I did my job.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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