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The town clock strikes again

by Minden Press-Herald

oday’s Echo of Our Past will be the story of the “town clock” a major source of debate over a century ago in our community. Here is the story of the one official “town” clock in Minden’s history.

With the acquisition of the Minden Mill of the Bodcau Lumber Company in 1901, Minden became a boomtown.  The population increased by nearly 50% in just over a year.  The mill provided electric lights to the community, sidewalks began to be constructed and some radicals even proposed paving the town’s streets. By the fall of 1901, the Minden Baptist Church (today reorganized as the First Baptist Church) had finally outgrown the small building that had been its home since 1845. When the church announced plans to build a new home, the prospect of an addition to the city’s “skyline” stirred creative ideas in some citizens. Mayor J. P. Kent, who also served as Publisher and Editor of the Webster Signal, decided that what Minden needed was a large clock downtown. This would allow the customers of local stores and businesses to always be aware of the time, and to hear the time chimed out by the “town clock.”  With an eye toward the budget, he also knew that if such a clock were included on the new Baptist church, the city might avoid the expense of this civic improvement. In his role as newspaper editor, he wrote the following story in the Signal of January 24, 1902:

“It has been suggested that a town clock be placed in the tower of the new Baptist church when it is completed. The Signal thinks this is a good suggestion. A clock would not cost much and would be a great convenience to the citizens. Will some enterprising citizen start the ball rolling by suggesting some feasible way to raise the money to purchase the clock? The Baptists will not only be willing to have the clock be put in their building but will no doubt aid such a movement in a financial way.”

There are some interesting aspects of Kent’s comments that need to be mentioned. First, at the time this article appeared, the Minden Baptist Church had not yet purchased the site for their new home. Kent did not have any idea if the church would be visible from most of downtown. The second point is that nowhere in the minutes of the First Baptist Church, which exist in detail for that time period, is the concept of adding a “town clock” to the church discussed. In fact, at the time of Kent’s comments, plans for the building had not yet begun and it was not certain that a “tower” would be part of the church. So, Kent’s promise of agreement from the church seems premature, at least from the existing written record of that day.

In those days Minden had two weekly papers. The competing paper, the Minden Democrat, owned, published and edited by S. A. Beaird, had been established the previous year, and, in the spirit of competition, tried to separate itself from the older Signal. In his paper Editor Beaird gave the following opinion, written after the site for the church had been selected: “A town clock has been suggested for the new Baptist Church. We would be glad to see a clock placed on the new church, but it is not the proper location for a town clock. The courthouse being centrally located would be a much better place for it, and then it would belong to the public and not to any particular sect.  If placed on the new church, it could not be seen from the business portion of town at all. But from the courthouse, it could be seen on all sides and would be of more benefit to people of both town and country. They could look up from any portion of the business streets and see the time.  Let’s have it, but by all means let it be on the courthouse.”

After a few weeks of back and forth editorial banter between the two papers, the idea of the clock died. The new Baptist church was built near the present northeast corner of Broadway and Fogle. Used by the church for only 24 years, it was later remodeled and became familiar to several generations of Mindenites as the Rex Theatre. The idea of a clock being built on the church, which did have a castle type tower, was never raised in official church minutes.

By 1905, Minden and Webster Parish had grown, and it was decided to erect a new courthouse. Even though Editor Beaird had sold the newspaper, his idea for a clock on the courthouse was included in the plans for the new building.

 When the structure was finished, each of the four sides of its dome displayed a clock face, visible, as Beaird had suggested, from all parts of the downtown area. From 1905, until the early 1920s, Minden had its town clock that made the current hour visible throughout the business district with a bell housed in the courthouse dome that chimed out the time. 

Years of wear and tear had its effect on the mechanism of the mechanical clock, and by 1922, none of the four faces of the clock showed the same time, although each still functioned. For a few years synchronizing the faces was a major problem, and then gradually the faces stopped one by one. By 1932, the clock was non-functioning, and in fact the entire dome structure of the courthouse was in a state of disrepair. Reports from offices in the courthouse described at least an inch of water standing in all areas of the building in times of heavy rain. In December of that year, facing the budget crush of the ongoing depression, the Webster Parish Police Jury decided to remove the dome and the clock, replacing that structure with a flat roof. The Minden Herald took a humorous look at the proceedings, from the viewpoint of the pigeons that made the dome their home. The Herald commented:  “’What will we do?’ is the question being asked by the courthouse pigeons since the Police Jury is having the dome taken off and making the roof flat. Reading the pigeons mind, they state that it is hard to find a home now. They did not know there was a depression on.” 

This was truly in the heart of the Great Depression as the same issue of the Herald reported on a Sheriff’s sale the previous Saturday where new owners had purchased 352 pieces of property that were sold due to delinquent taxes. Still, some local residents were outraged by the proposal to change the appearance of the Webster Parish Courthouse. The jury received dozens of objections and requests to reconsider the decision.

In response to the expressed objections, the Jury met in a special session on Friday, January 13, 1933. More than 100 citizens appeared at this meeting, one described the dome as “a welcome beacon for the city of Minden and the parish since 1905.” Those present also emphasized that not only did they want the dome saved, but they also wanted the clock to be preserved. Hearing the voice of the public, the Jury agreed to do everything possible to save the dome. The clock mechanism was reported to be beyond repair, but the jury promised to investigate the feasibility of purchasing an electric clock to be installed in the dome. Bids were to be let at the February Jury meeting. Unfortunately, when the bids were opened, none met the time standards set for completion or the required bonding capacity. The Jury decided to set the matter aside for further study and take action at its April meeting.

Between that February meeting and the planned April discussion, the string of disasters of 1933 hit Minden. A devastating fire at the end of February was followed by the failure of the Bank of Minden in early April and then the killer tornado of May 1. Suddenly, the concerns about the dome and the clock seemed trivial. After the 17” downpour of rain that hit Minden in the third week of July caused extensive flooding in the courthouse, it was decided that something had to be done very soon about the courthouse dome, which had been additionally damaged in the tornado. The Jury decided to attempt to repair the structure with local funds. The old bell from the dome was removed and placed on the sidewalk running along the west side of the courthouse (not very far from the location where it is today mounted next to the landmark Arizona Ash tree.)  After removing the bell, financial problems caused the Jury to be unable to do any additional work for several weeks. The Minden Herald commented it was fortunate that it wasn’t the Halloween season, lest local youths be tempted to create a constant din by striking the bell as a prank. Finally, in the fall, the dome was remodeled. The old clock was removed, and the sides of the dome had windows added, after a few years the windows proved problematic and the sides of the dome were filled with siding. That was the configuration of the old courthouse building for the remaining years of its life. In 1953, the parish government moved into the present Webster Parish Courthouse, and the old domed building became the Minden City Hall, until it was replaced by the current City Hall in the Civic Center complex in 1970. The building was then torn down and today the extension of Pearl Street between Main and Broadway runs through the space formerly covered by the old dome. The bell, had an interesting history. It remained in the courthouse, silent but preserved. When the building was torn down, St. Paul’s Catholic Church acquired the bell where it was once again rung as a call to services and on the occasion of deaths. When the church moved to Fincher Road, the bell was sold to James Powell, as part of a fund-raiser for the church. In December 1992, Powell donated the bell to the City of Minden and in May 1993, the bell was mounted where it stands today, under the Arizona Ash tree downtown, next to the site of the building where it originally resided.

Public outcry for saving the clock seemed to be lost as Minden struggled with the problems of the depression. In 1939, the new Minden Bank and Trust that replaced the Bank of Minden that had failed in 1933, erected the street clock that still stands on Main Street today.  That clock was visible and chimed the hours and seemed to fill the need for a clock. Now the years have made that clock inoperable and we are again without a “town” clock. However, that faint Echo of Our Past you hear just might be the ringing bell of Minden’s town clock, 1905-1933, R.I.P.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald

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