John Blanchfield carefully adjusts a delicate timepiece with the patience of a doctor listening to the beat of a heart. He gingerly places his hands on the clock's face testing the fragile surface as his voice mimics the tick-tock of the surrounding clockworks.
"I started working on clocks for fun in 1967 while living in Bowie, Md. I was commuting to Washington, D.C. for five to six years. I read books on the craft and educated myself. I just began taking them apart and putting them back together. I didn't make too many screw-ups," he laughs. "I learned my way around them.
"I got my degree in animal husbandry. I graduated from Long Island Agriculture and Technology School in Farmingdale. After graduation I started working with animals right away. I had to do an internship on a farm working with Jersey Cows. All that means is that I milked a lot of cows. This was before the automatic milking machines they have now, so everything was done by hand," he shakes his head.
(Photo — Diane Chase)
"Before I went into farming for myself I became an artificial inseminator for the Curtiss Candy Company. The owner formed a national company of artificial inseminators and bought the best semen money could buy throughout the United States with the goal to produce a strong stock of milk producers and it worked. It was unusual at the time and then colleges like Cornell became involved for a while. I think Otto Schnering, the owner of Curtiss Candy, was one of the first to attempt to produce quality breeders through this method."
In the early 1900s Otis Schnering started Curtiss Candy in Chicago and manufactured candies such as Baby Ruth and Butterfinger. The company was later sold to Nestle. Through the Curtiss Breeding Services, prize-winning animals were produced that helped improve milk production nationally.
"It always grew quite a crowd. It wasn't a common practice then. I did this for about five years. I had a territory, Franklin County, MD. This program helped farmers in West Virginia where the joke used to be that cows there had mouths shaped like an ax so they could eat grass between the rocks. The milk production in the state was poor and now through artificial insemination they have very good herds," he nods. "We always bred for milk production and type."
"After five years I got tired of driving so much. I was inseminating about 1,000 cows a year. I then bought my own farm with a herd of about 60 cows. My family got involved. I was married with three boys and they helped me out on the farm."
"Back in the sixties I was shipping my milk to the Washington, D.C. milk market, which is one of the best in the country and still is I think. My father and I owned the farm together. He had been a post office employee all his life and felt, with my degree, that it was a good time to own a farm."
"This allowed me to really see what farmers and rural communities were needing when I started working for the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) in Washington, D.C. I helped make mortgage loans, sewer/water loans, recreation loans, farm loans, the whole thing before they changed it to the Rural Development Administration."
Currently the organization is called the Rural Economic and Community Development Service. The agency was first created during the Depression to provide rural families with grants and loans to help reestablish self-sufficiency.
He says, "My mother was living in Gloversville and I wanted to be nearby to help her. She was in her late 80s and quite by herself. Malone was the job I could get closest to Gloversville. I transferred to Malone with the same company. I was providing loans and mortgages to rural agencies. It did great things for rural America. Before that, rural communities were the last to get anything. I quit in 1983 to start my own business," he smiles.
He moved from his position at the FHA to start a variety of businesses. He built a store called Lakeview Farms in Tupper Lake that later became the Red Barn.
"We sold practically everything there. We sold it in 1989. It's now a restaurant. We also had a flower shop here on Main Street in Saranac Lake. Then I bought a flower shop on Academy Street and ran it for many years. My wife ran the shop until 2006 when selling it gave me the opportunity to open up this clock shop. I was doing clock repair as a side job the whole time."
He has survived his two wives with one son working as a chef in eastern Maryland, another working for World Bank, while his stepson works in hotel management.
As the sole proprietor of Adirondack Clock Works, located on Main Street in Saranac Lake, John repairs and sells clocks. His clients range from locals down the street to a customer from Japan and everywhere in between. John insists the clocks he sells and repairs are not all luxury items. He states how most people have a clock in their house that may not be antique but is not a throwaway item either. Perhaps it has sentimental value. As long as the mechanisms can be repaired it is worth holding on to. He adds that people are still given dish sets when they get married and people are still given clocks. He quips about recycling and being a green business.
"We have become a throwaway society, whether it is with our elderly or our material goods. I feel that the value is in repairing and preserving," he shrugs modestly. "There is nothing artificial about the workings of the clock; it's all metal working pieces.
"Saranac Lake's downtown area is becoming a mixture of other interesting stores selling art, books, toys, antique stores and art supplies," he says. "We have this beautiful architecture from the 20s that fits that mixture.
"Clocks are brought in for a variety of reasons. Some need the mechanisms fixed or the timing. I repaint the faces on some. It depends. I have a talented young man working with me, kind of an apprentice, named Christopher Buerkett. He has been helping with the process.
"The most unusual clock I ever worked on was an Atmos Clock that worked on barometric pressure, a French mechanism that doesn't need to be wound. It was so complex it practically drove me crazy," he laughs. "I take what I am given and try to make it right. I spend so much time. I love it. It is so satisfying that it goes out to the owner in perfect condition."
"I want someone to know that, when they bring in that clock, that I take care of it in the best way. To me, repairing clocks isn't a lost art. It is preserving art."
"Over here is a clock case made in Gettysburg, Pa. at the time of the Civil War. There is supposedly another in a museum in Gettysburg. I am trying to get the works for it."
He explains that the case is made of chestnut and very rare.
Chestnut blight, caused by the Asian bark fungus, all but wiped out the American chestnut in the early 1920s. He points to another case from the early 1800s and acknowledges it as a beautiful example of a checkerboard veneer.
John diligently points out the significance of each timepiece from a small freestanding clock against the wall, a Grandmother Clock as opposed to a Grandfather Clock.
"It's smaller than the Grandfather Clock and has a balance wheel like in a wristwatch. It's an English clock and very unusual, very few were made like that. Its case is made of oak."
He passionately explains how not all clocks on display are for sale. He shows one that is from a client where he will start by refinishing the case. John carefully documented each side and will number the ornate decorations of the Louis XIII Clock.
"My client wants me to refinish it. All the metal work will have to come off. It won't affect the value of the piece. I take off the finish down to the stain. Never take off the original stain. Then I put a good finish back on and it comes out beautiful. It is a passion of mine.
"Clocks are not simple. They are very complicated. It is all a matter of gear reduction until you come up with a product that can tell time. It's all mathematics. Start out with a big wheel and then the next one has more teeth and so on. All the pieces are metal. If you take care of them they will last a long time. I have some clocks here that were made in 1813," he smiles. "All these pieces have stories and history. It makes it part of the human experience. I hope I am providing much more than just a clock."