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Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Fredericksburg a style mecca? Yup.

MORE: Read more Spotsylvania County news

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Thomas Walker of Fredericksburg was known for the ornate brass faces on his 18th-century case clocks. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star)

Fredericksburg as a supplier of arms to the American Revolution? Check.

Fredericksburg as the font of the freedom of worship for Virginia and the nation, thanks to Thomas Jefferson

This rare, Revolutionary War-era grandfather clock made by a local artisan just went on exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star)

and his Statute for Religious Freedom. Check.

But Fredericksburg as a hotbed for cutting-edge Colonial clockmakers? News to me.

Learning that bit of history on Tuesday, if only in cursory fashion, is the sort of thing that makes my job a joy.

For that, please allow me to thank Mary Helen Dellinger, the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s senior vice president for collections and exhibitions, and the Tompkins family of Spotsylvania County. Dellinger, for introducing me to the world of Fredericksburg clockmaker Thomas Walker, and the Tompkins, for loaning one of Walker’s rare, Revolutionary War-era clocks to the museum.

Turns out that Fredericksburg, a town of about 1,500 people by the dawn of the American Revolution, also cast a big shadow when it came to clockmaking and cabinetmaking in that day.

Clocks originating from our trans-Atlantic river port have long been recognized, “unlike many other articles produced by artisans in the early South,” according to Jonathan Prown, Ronald Hurst and Sumpter Priddy III, authors of a 1992 monograph on the subject.

One was spotlighted in a pioneering 1931 work, Southern Antiques. Another appeared in the catalog for the first big exhibit of Southern cabinetry, held in Richmond in 1952, the authors note.

The town was well situated

Fredericksburg clocks were much in demand, with customers calling for them from as far distant as the Shenandoah Valley and Amherst County.

Foremost among the town’s clockmakers was Thomas Walker, who made the 7-foot-tall case clock loaned to the Fredericksburg museum by the Tompkins.

Walker “left behind a remarkable legacy of signed clock movements,” Prown, Hurst and Priddy write. That’s especially so given that many, or most, businessmen in his day merely imported clock movements from Britain and stuck them in American-made cases, Dellinger said.

Fredericksburg tax records and newspapers from before 1782 are unavailable, but early court records indicate that Walker “not only made clocks and watches but also repaired them,” the monograph’s authors state.

“Twelve clocks with movements bearing Walker’s name have been recorded,” they write. “Each has a brass dial with a calendar wheel, and most feature additional mechanical options, such as strike/silent, seconds, and moon dials.”

That scarcity, in addition to the level of Walker’s artisanship, make his clocks highly collectible. Examples of his work are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Colonial Williamsburg and Stratford Hall.

And now, one is on display in the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s Old Town Hall–a dream of its founders since Day 1–thanks to the kindness of the Tompkins.

The clock, which bears the name of Thomas Walker and the town, has been in the family’s possession as long as anyone can remember, a family member said late Tuesday.

Until the mid-20th century, it resided at the family seat, Ormsby, in Caroline County.

But Ormsby is a story for another day. Please stay tuned …

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