MEXICO – When officials of the town of Mexico realized no building in town could hold all who’d come to vote on the question of the day, they lined the men up on both sides of Church Street to count them, the yeas on one side, the nays on the other, and with that and a vote of 379 to 306, the construction of a town hall that could handle such gatherings was authorized March 6, 1877.
It was to cost no more than $5,000. Increased taxes were to provide another $1,800. The low bid of three submitted was accepted at $3,449.42, and on Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, 1879, the new town hall opened, fittingly named Washington Hall.
Whether or not it had a steeple on its opening day remains a question. But what is known is that within a month the town was considering the purchase of a clock. A play was presented that same month to raise the necessary funds, but it took another three years before the town voted, in 1882, to raise $325 for the clock, and at a special meeting, to approve an additional $200 for a bell to go with it and toll on the hour.
That building still stands on the south side of Route 104 almost at the intersection of Route 69. And though no longer the town hall, it is owned by the town. Now known as McAuslan Hall, named after a former town supervisor, it houses the town court in the same basement that housed the town’s original calaboose, as it was called, built into that basement in 1882 where the town’s “local crop of drunk and disorderly could be held.”
As town halls came and went in the history of the town, this one didn’t last much longer than those that had preceded it, the last one having burned in 1862, leaving the town without one for 20 years. Nevertheless, Washington Hall remained town hall for only 16 years until 1898 when the town, believing it no longer needed such a large building, opted to go high-tech, leasing the building to Otto Gratzer, who brought the modern marvel of the day, moving pictures, to Mexico, turning the town hall into a movie theater. The town eventually sold the building to him in 1944. The Masons bought the building some time in the 1970s and in the past few years sold it back to the town.
And so, it has come full circle. And in all that time, the clock ticked, and the bell tolled. All that time, that is, except for the last five or six years.
About 133 years after the Seth Thomas large, heavy, and complicated solid steel works began to turn the hands on the three clocks of the hall’s copper-topped steeple and strike the heavy and securely-bolted bronze bell of the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Company of Troy, N.Y. each hour, ringing out the number of hours each time, a large gear broke, and time stood still – until Tuesday, March 9, and it all moved again.
Two steeplejacks out of Pottstown, Pa., about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, waited two months for dry weather to make the trip to Mexico to bring the old clock and bell back to life and up to modern standards.
Zoltan Zuberecz Sr. and his brother were mountain climbers in Hungary before coming to this country in 1987. They first worked in Philadelphia in smokestack demolition, taking down hundreds of smokestacks brick by brick by hand from the top down. A few years ago, Zuberecz’s brother retired. But his son, Zoltan Jr. had just finished college with a degree in nursing and computers.
He decided he didn’t want to sit at a computer all day. “I’d rather do this,” he said. “I decided this is the job for me.”
And so, there they were, father and son, in a room the size of a small bedroom of very old wood with a large bell bolted to a heavy timber about eight inches by eight inches thick, centered, running the length of the room about six-and-a-half feet up from the floor. From the center of the bell hung a two-foot long solid metal rod, like the mallet that might strike the center of a gong. But this bell was struck by a large metal mechanical hammer driven by the clock to clang against the inside of the bell. The entire gizmo was a fascinating example of Industrial Revolution-era ingenuity. The entire workings of the clock stretched from the floor of the building up three floors to the steeple, which itself was divided into two floors. On the lower were the steel gears that turned a steel vertical rod running up through the floor to the steeple’s upper level where it split into three horizontal rods, one for each clock. These turned the hands. Those were dismantled, and the 21st century took over.
Electricians had installed new electric service and heavy electric cable up into the steeple awaiting the steeplejacks’ arrival. Now Zoltan Jr. rigged the clocks, complete with new hands, up to electronic controllers, one for each clock, including GPS systems that keep perfect time and re-start the clocks should the power fail. And along with those, Zoltan Sr. installed the new bright metal electronic striker just to the outside of the bell, totally programmable to strike in any way the town wanted, on the hour or more, tolling the number of hours or not, all day long, or maybe not late at night. It was decided the bell would toll on the hour as it always had, ringing out the number of hours too. It remains to be seen if it will toll all night.
Town board member, Russell Patrick, watched over the entire process throughout the day and added numerous details about the building and the clock as the work was being done.
“One of the steel gears has a problem, possibly some teeth have broken off,” he said of the old clock works as we watched from the ground. “It would be very difficult to replicate it. And besides, that, relying on an individual to go up there once a week and wind the clock…we had over the years maybe just a handful of guys that ever did it, and it seemed harder and harder to find volunteers. This’ll be easier.”
Having climbed up into that steeple, I’d say just about anything else would be easier. For starters here are Partrick’s directions to find the staircase up to the bell tower: “You go straight into what used to be the Masons’ meeting room,” he said. “You turn left and go into the Ladies’ Room, and the stairway is there going up.”
Well, that was different. And so were the stairs. Very dark, narrow, old, with only spotty railings here and there. And then there’s the finale. Straight up, more of a rickety old ladder than stairs, with almost nothing worth anything to hang onto. Nevertheless, it all got you there and probably gets easier with practice. As small as the upper section of the steeple was, Zoltan Sr. thought it was all quite comfortable. A lot of spaces they work in are even smaller.
Town Historian and Board Member Judy Greenway contributed numerous interesting details to this story of the building, clock, and bell.
“It was out of service,” she said, “because first of all, the main floor that held the tower had tipped. So, the first thing we had to do was go in and repair that to bring it up level because the clock has, like a cuckoo clock, two big chains with a weight, and they go the full length of the building, top to bottom. And that’s how the clock runs. And after we fixed the floor, we noticed that it still wasn’t running, and there was a part broke. Then we finally decided to fix it electronically. The school is the same way. That’s what we decided to do. We couldn’t get a part fixed for that old a clock. There used to be a wrought iron gate around the top part. The old pictures show a wrought iron gate on it. I think it was just probably for decoration.”
For years there hadn’t been a bell ringing in all of Mexico. None of the church bells within the town work anymore. Greenway said the town had been putting money away for years to fix up the building and repair the clock. All in all this project cost $17,000.
Judy Greenway thought back on the sound of that bell from years ago.
“That’s what I always remember,” she said, “that it was mellow, it wasn’t tinny. It was a nice-sounding bell.”
And now, with all the original mechanics still there and some new electronics installed, it will be again.