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The old town clock ran out of time

You know you’re getting old when the first thing that comes to mind while reading an old Mail Tribune article is a song you danced to when you couldn’t even legally drive a car.

“You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” was the biggest hit record for the man who sounded like Elvis, Ral Donner. It reached No. 4 in the fall of 1961 on Billboard’s Top 100 list of popular songs.

Now, you may ask, “What does Ral Donner have to do with Medford’s Town Clock?” Actually, not a lot. In fact, almost nothing, except a song title.

You see, one morning in April 1939, some Mail Tribune reporter — or dare we say editor? — woke up to the fact that the one-ton chime clock mounted on the corner of the Jackson County Bank building had suddenly gone missing. (The building is now home to a jewelry store on the northeast corner of Central and Main.)

“We note with some chagrin,” said the writer, “that the old clock that registered the passage of local time for so many years has disappeared.

“Judging by the reaction registered to date, no one appreciated this clock, or thought much about it, UNTIL it was dismantled and shipped off to some place in Eastern Oregon.”

The bronze clock was installed in the early winter of 1925 as “a service to the community,” by Medford’s oldest bank.

With bells chiming every 15 minutes, bank officials hoped the traditional melody inspired by England’s Westminster Abbey “would mean something to the people. The bells will have a message for the youngster on their way to school, a thought for the businessman, and an inspiration for all.”

The clock’s chimes echoed throughout downtown. Its four, 30-inch dials were visible for nearly half a block, and even lit up at night.

All was well until 1932, when the hands that guided the lives of downtown workers back from lunch and suggested wayward school children back to class, suddenly froze at 6:30.

“The chimes that have rung for more than half the past decade, are still today,” said a Mail Tribune reporter, “and the populace is crying, ‘Somebody wind the bank clock!’”

Several interested citizens offered mostly polite suggestions to no avail. The city should finance operations of the clock. Move it to another location. Perhaps the electric company should donate the power to keep the clock in ticking order.

“The prediction,” said the reporter, “is that many people will be late to work tomorrow — again.”

The real cause of failure was likely the recent takeover, a month earlier, of the Jackson County Bank by the First National Bank of Medford. Perhaps electric bills weren’t paid, or perhaps the new owners didn’t immediately realize the popularity of the clock.

Three years later, in 1935, the bank bells of Medford were silent again. Arthur Perry, Mail Tribune humorist, noted that weeks after it went quiet, “The Town Clock is still out of commission, waiting for a watchmaker with a stepladder. It kept time for years, and then started acting like a $90 wristwatch.”

It was three months before jeweler John Lawrence was able to induce the clock to chime again. He had just moved his jewelry store into the Jackson County Bank building.

At the end of the year, the National Bank of Medford sold to the U.S. National Bank, marking the beginning of the end of the Town Clock.

By that April 1939 column, those who hadn’t “appreciated this clock,” discovered its importance. “And,” said the reporter, “if it isn’t returned, or an equally serviceable and conspicuous timepiece be put up on the same corner, there is going to be a local uprising — or something.

“On the up to date and fragrant shores of Bear Creek, we regulate our comings and goings almost entirely on what time it is — and — who can really KNOW without that clock?!”

“It just fairly makes your heart ache,” Mark Twain said, “you want it so!”

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” sang the Rolling Stones; however, in the spirit of Ral Donner — sometimes you lose it.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.