At the Erath County courthouse square a little known misadventure in history looks out across the town.
Maybe you’ve noticed it, but high atop the structure's clock tower is an oddity that could possibly be one-of-a-kind and unique to Stephenville.
No one knows for certain, and the best explanation is that the error was not a mishap but intentional due to a clockmaker’s superstition.
John Wooley, facilities manager for Erath County, says the error was made and noticed shortly after the courthouse underwent its first restoration in 1987-88.
"The story I was told is that if there are four clocks on one tower, the people that install them generally change two of the numbers on one (clock) face," said Wooley, who has serviced the courthouse clock and electronic chimes since 1997. "That could be true or false, but that’s what I was told. You hear all kinds of stories and superstitions."
The explanation could be similar to that of other superstitions in the construction trade, like that of multi-story buildings where the 13th floor is not listed on an elevator’s button panel, and instead named number 14.
Take a close look next time you pass the courthouse. Viewable from the west side of the square, passersby will notice the white-faced clock has two numbers out of sequence. They read in Roman numerals 1, 2, 3, 5, 4, 6.
According to a history of Texas courthouses, written by Bill Morgan, county leaders were notified of the clock’s unusual face following the $1.7 million restoration in 1988. "A clock builder visited the town and offered to fix the clock. The courthouse officials thought the idea absurd; they had already spent the money on the courthouse clock and it worked fine. But no one had noticed the clock’s numbers were out of sequence."
Morgan notes in his accounts of the misadventure in history, "amid the county’s excitement over the discovery, a local judge (then County Judge Bill Hailey) offered a sly — and fiscally conservative — solution. He observed that every county boasts something unusual, and the courthouse clock could be Erath County’s own."
Calls to several clock tower manufacturers revealed that there is no such superstition. A representative of Elderhorst Bells, Inc. simply said it sounded more like an "oops" on the part of the clock maker.
Marc Dehaan, owner of Clockmasters in Waxahachie, also says it appears the Erath County courthouse clock was not intentionally made to be out of sequence. "As far as the numerals on clocks go, makers decided years ago to include a different version of the Roman number four, and have it appear as ‘IIII’ instead of ‘IV.’ They would do that to make it look better since the number four would be nearly upside down and look more like a ‘VI’, or six."
Dehaan’s best guess is that "they made a mistake."
According to a history of the county courthouse, written by members of the local historical commission, the tower clock had been subject to being inoperable and needing repairs from time to time since it was installed in 1911.
On Jan. 25, 1945, the original clock, complete with weights and an intricate system of mechanized gears and drive shafts, was converted to an electric-powered mechanism.
Again, in 1954, it was reported that the clock atop the courthouse tower was having problems again. "The county contacted The Tower Clock Service Company to report on the clock’s problems, since the clock had been installed only six years earlier."
On Sept. 8, 1951 the company inspected the tower clock and found it to have "rough bearings due to them not having been packed (with grease) on a yearly basis." The clock lasted until 1954 when The Tower Clock Company wrote to the county judge on Nov. 17, 1954 and explained that they had received the Erath County Courthouse clock’s motor.
The company found the motor to be unrepairable due to the lack of maintenance and availability of parts, and recommended that the county purchase a new capacitor synchronous control time motor at a cost of $112.50, plus a minimal service contract to save the county money on the clock in the future.
Ten years later the tower clock had once again quit and Erath County’s first female judge, Lanelle Harbin, wrote a letter on Aug. 17, 1964 requesting that R.G. Jackson take care of the tower clock as quickly as possible. Erath County had a service contract with Jackson and the clock was deemed "completely out of order."
The storied clock tower has even more history tucked away inside and not visible to most of the public.
A tour of the courthouse’s tower reveals even more about those involved in the structure's construction in 1891-92.
Numerous names are inscribed in both pen and pencil in the tower’s rafters. Among them are more modern inscriptions from the few who have climbed 177 feet up the rickety wooden steps, as well as some dated as early as 1893.
Wooley, who sets the clocks on a quarterly basis and services the electronic mechanisms, provided a tour of the tower and pointed out some of the names, including the oldest signature by a young man. It reads: "A.J. Stiel, Merkle, Tex Taylor Co., Thurs June 29 1893, age 21 years." It’s not known if the young man was a member of the crew who labored on the courthouse, or if he was one of the earliest visitors to the top of the town.
Another early signature is placed above the east-facing clock, and is inscribed "V.M. Washam, 5/3/1899."
Others include: "Roy Sherrill cleaned clock June 1938," "Carey Fraser 10/12/2K," "Ray Stone - 1987," "Mike Toves & James Reeves installed lightning rod 6-20-02," "J.R. Jones Historical Remodel - 2002," "Micah Toves loves Shaun Collie 11-29-01," "Jevan Snead ‘03," "T.J. Phelps Jr. remodel 12-3-87," and joining the tradition is Wooley with his own inscription, "John Wooley cleaned ‘97."
"The signatures are all part of the history of the building. Basically, the two that I think are legitimate signatures are the ones dated 1899 and 1893," said Wooley. "I believe those to be accurate. Everything else is some type of graffiti or signatures of carpenters who worked on the remodel."
Wooley has several other interesting stories about the clock tower, which is now used to beam microwave signals from the courthouse to the sheriff’s department and county tax office.
A few years ago, county employees were baffled when the microwave signal continued to fade out every day at 5:20 p.m., said Wooley. "We tried to figure it out for a month and wondered why it kept doing it. Finally, we came up here (tower top) and saw that the clock’s hands were going in front of the microwave transmitter."
Wooley said the problem of their computer system going down was solved and the transmitters were re-positioned so the south-facing clock’s hands would not block the device.
"We’ve got a lot of history here," said Wooley, who advances the clocks each year during the time to "spring forward" and "fall back" — a chore he takes seriously despite the fact that the clocks often lose track of time. "There’s two out of the four that keep accurate time, and there’s two that are a little suspect at times due to humidity and condensation."
Every three or four months, Wooley will go up to the seventh floor clock tower and checks the mechanisms to make sure they’re running smoothly. "I’ll adjust them and probably if they need some assistance, we’ll put some lubricant on them. If the clocks lag too far behind we’ll get a new mechanism."
Wooley says the elements and weather cause the clocks to lose time as well. "If we have a lightning strike the system will go off and surges in power will interrupt the time too."
While no one knows the exact story behind the current clock’s numbers being out of order, one thing is for certain — it’s not very noticeable unless you’re looking for the mistake.