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Meier’s Wonderful Clock

February 2024
1min read

Our query about the Great Detroit Clock, which appeared in the October, 1975. issue, was almost immediately answered. Sally Ann Birks of Mt. Clemens, Michigan, writes: My great-granduncle Felix Meier, inspired by a dream, built his masterpiece over a period of ten years. It was completed and first displayed in Detroit at Merrill Hall in 1879. (I know this conflicts with Ash’s information- 1876—but Felix refined his clock several times during the ten years, so perhaps he didn’t consider it ready for public display until 1879.)

He estimated that it cost him thirty thousand dollars to build. He formed a company with four other men and raised an additional fifty thousand dollars to exhibit the clock in various cities and expositions in the United States. He called it “The AmericanNational Astronomical Clock.” It was shown for little more than a year before all the profits were consumed by the expense of packing and shipping it (Felix’s propensity for drinking and gambling also played a part in this dismal showing).

Finally, in 1880, Felix sold the clock to a Jennie Babcock of New York City, who apparently put the clock in storage for the next fifteen years. In 1895 Felix received a letter (on file at the Detroit Public Library) from an Eliza Anne Thayer. She wrote that the clock “is in storage having passed into my hands. … The woodwork is dusty and a little defaced. It is in condition to need some repairs.” She suggested that Felix come to New York and repair it himself.

Felix, however, was more interested in selling. In his reply to her (also on file) he inquires about any offers to buy it and wonders if he would get a commission if he could come up with a buyer. He also warns her that the patent expires in 1896 and that she should sell the clock before that or renew the patent.

That is the last we know of it until Felix was on his deathbed in 1908. He wanted to know then what had happened to his clock. According to his granddaughter, her father, Louis, went to New York to trace it. He discovered that the clock had burned in a warehouse fire. But a press release in the Detroit Library indicates that the clock perished in a fire that destroyed Steeplechase Park on Coney Island.

So that was Felix’s folly. The story doesn’t end here, however. Felix’s son, Louis, carried on his father’s trade and built his own masterpiece. He began it in 1892 and completed it in 1904. This gigantic clock is equal to its predecessor in intricacy and detail. It was hand-carved from a single piece of mahogany, and the figures (people of fourteen nations) march to the strains of a music box around a globe that revolves once every twentyfour hours. My grandmother, Clare Roellinger, and Louis’s wife, Julia, made authentic costumes for the animated dolls.

The clock is now housed at the L. M. Gear Company of East Detroit, Michigan, a concern owned by Louis’s grandsons. They had an addition built onto the company offices to accommodate the fourteen-foot clock and its weights, which extend into a well eight feet beneath it. Visitors are welcome.

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