Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Hands of time
Dave Miller returns to Missouri and a lifelong passion for woodworking

by Bob McEowen

Dave Miller stands in the bedroom of a Hannibal home and asks the owners where they would like an anchor set into their wall. This simple task is nearly the last step in a process that began more than six months before.

Large gallery clocks personalized with corporate and school logos are just one offering of Dave Miller's Ralls County Clock Company. Dave also handmakes reproduction regulator clocks and repairs antique timepieces. This clock is one Dave made for his daughter, who will graduate from the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005.

With the hanger installed, Dave places a cherry wood regulator clock on the wall. He opens the clock’s crystal face and sets the hour, minute and calendar hands to the proper time and date. Using a large metal key he winds the clock and gently taps a pendulum with the tip of his finger. As the shiney brass bob swings from side to side Dave’s work is done.

The installation of this schoolhouse-style clock returned a family memory to its rightful state. Jill Walker inherited her mother’s bedroom furniture but her sister received the clock that always accompanied it. She turned to Dave to replace the missing heirloom.

“I wanted the clock back to complete the outfit,” she says. “Since that’s the way it’s always been that’s the way it has to be.”

For Dave, the $850 timepiece represents the pinnacle of his clock-making career. Working only from an old photograph Dave designed and built a clock that would match Jill’s memories. With its hand-oiled, cherry cabinet, German eight-day movement, a third hand that points to the date, chimes to mark the hour and an authentic rag-cloth face, the clock is a thing of beauty. It also challenged all of Dave’s skills as a woodworker.

Dave explains the operation of a regulator clock to Jill and Dave Walker. The Hannibal couple ordered a custom-made schoolhouse-style regulator clock to replace a family heirloom.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done because there’s not one 90 degree angle in that clock,” he says. “That’s a solid cherry round face that was cut out by hand.”

A life-long woodworker, Dave had dabbled with clocks in the past. Three years ago the former airline operations manager formed The Ralls County Clock Company and began making wall and mantel clocks full time.

Although few of Dave’s clocks are as complex or as costly as the one he made for the Walkers, almost all begin the same way. The Ralls County Electric Cooperative member rarely makes a clock to put in inventory. Every clock is unique. Typically a customer approaches him with a request or an idea and Dave invites them out to his shop, located on ancestral land west of Hannibal, and together they sketch out a design and specifications.

Only then does Dave begin work. Using hand-selected Missouri hardwoods, he builds a cabinet and installs the finest European hardened-brass movements. The process can take months and the price starts at about $300 for a simple clock. A typical clock sells for $450 to $650, depending on the complexity of the woodworking and style of movement.

Dave uses German-made, hardened brass movements in his clocks.

“You can go to discount stores and buy the imported look-alikes but they’re not the same quality. They don’t even come close,” Dave says. “These are original, hand-cut, hand-planed. They have a solid brass mechanism. They’re the best you can buy. The glass is real crystal.

“It’s quality. It’s reminiscent of an age gone by. It’s a real clock and people pay for that,” he says. “I guess people are tired of junk now. They want to go back to quality.”

When Dave launched his business he wasn’t necessarily aware of a pent-up demand for quality clocks. He was just trying to make a living from his rural Missouri home.

Dave grew up in St. Louis but often visited an uncle and aunt on their farm near the railroad town of Rensselaer. It was there Dave first experienced the allure of a hand-wound clock. His aunt had clocks everywhere and the sound of all those timepieces chiming on the hour made an impression.

Dave’s parents eventually took over the farm, which had been in the family since 1834. Meanwhile, Dave set out for career and family. He worked in the airline industry for 18 years, serving as operations manager for Braniff and two other now-defunct carriers at airports in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Detroit, New York and even Guam. In 1979, after his third experience being laid off by a bankrupt airline, he came home to Missouri and the family.

There, he briefly tried his hand making clocks. A 1982 newspaper story hanging on the wall of his shop attests to those early efforts. But that enterprise never really took off so Dave put his tools aside and moved to the East Coast to work as a salesman until 1996, when his father died.

Dave sights the placement of a clock face. To perform properly the dial and mechanism must be expertly installed.

Divorced, with grown children, Dave moved to Missouri to care for the 135-acre farm. He fixed up the house, rented out the farm ground and returned to an old passion, woodworking.

“I’ve been building with wood my whole life,” he says. “I’ve made furniture, cabinets, doll houses for my three children.”

With no job and an expensive radio-controlled model airplane habit to support, Dave decided to try building clocks again. He remodeled the old storage barn that held his earlier shop, bought tools and began learning all he could about building clocks.

“Two or three years ago I decided this is it. I’m too old to keep playing games so let’s get it on,” he says, recalling his decision to launch a clock business.

In 2001 he hung a sign heralding his enterprise on the gravel road leading to his home. “Ralls County Clock Company, Antique Clock Repair, Fine Hardwood Reproductions, By Appointment Only,” the sign reads.

Not surprisingly, the world did not beat a path to his remote door. Still, through word of mouth, local advertising and a page on a community Web site, Dave began attracting orders. Most of his sales have been to customers within a 150-mile radius of Hannibal but he’s also shipped clocks to California, Oklahoma and Texas. Slowly but surely, he says, the business is taking off.

“It’s been very hard,” he admits. “Only recently, in the last six, seven months, have I seen the end of the tunnel. It’s really starting to click.”

Dave Miller adjusts the movement of an antique clock he’s restoring. Dave’s Ralls County Clock Company refurbishes old clocks and makes modern reproductions using Missouri hardwoods.

Besides building clocks and offering a few imported clocks for sale Dave also restores antique clocks. Typical of these is a Seth Thomas mantel clock with a damaged cabinet. “When I got it the movement was all gummed up. It wouldn’t run. I got it cleaned and oiled,” Dave says as he winds the clock and operates a lever inside the mechanism that causes the clock to chime.

“That clock was probably built anywhere from 1870 to 1900. It’s the original movement and it’s still running,” he says. “Once the cabinet is done it will command $1,200, $1,500.”

The skyrocketing value of old clocks is one reason Dave says his heirloom-quality clocks are an investment rather than a mere luxury.

“These are exactly the kinds of clocks that I build,” Dave says. “I am not into junk stuff. There’s no plastic. It’s all original and hand made. They will last as long as these movements will.”

While Dave is building his reputation on modern versions of traditional clocks, he hopes to build his business with a more modern offering. Dave has discovered a niche, producing large, round, gallery-style clocks featuring hand-painted faceplates emblazoned with corporate logos or university emblems.

Already Dave has produced personalized clocks for area banks and other businesses. He is currently designing a series of clocks for the Burlingtone Northern and Santa Fe Railroad and is negotiating with the University of Missouri system for use of its logo.

Dave waxes the hand-oiled finish of a clock cabinet at his shop near Rensselaer. Miller specializes in hand-made regulator clocks.

These clocks, which sell for about $500, are ideal as corporate awards and gifts to recognize a retirement or other special accomplishment, Dave says. One sample he showed the university bears the logo of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the proclamation “Dr. Jen Miller, DVM, Class of 2005.” Dave’s daughter will receive the 21-inch clock when she graduates next year.

Unlike the reproduction clocks Dave makes, these gallery clocks feature modern, battery-operated mechanisms. Most of his clocks, however, require more involvement on the part of the owner.

“You’ve got to wind it,” Dave says. “Once a week, you just plan on it. It’s like mowing the grass. You’ve got to do it whether you like it or not.”

In return for this minimal attention, Dave says his clocks reward their owners with their beauty and mechanical precision.

“There’s just something about it. It’s the sound. It’s watching that pendulum, the quality of the cabinet,” he says. “You get used to it and you have to have it.”

For more information call the Ralls County Clock Company at (573) 221-4002 or e-mail rallscoclockco@aol.com.

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