It could drive you crazy: hundreds of tick-tocking clocks. When scores of them chime simultaneously at noon, the cacophony can be deafening. But it’s also one of the best times to visit the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pa.
The museum in this town on the Susquehanna River, at the western edge of Lancaster County, opened in 1977 with 100 items. Today, the collection consists of about 13,000 timepieces, with about 1,500 on display. The perfect place for an inveterate clock-watcher like me.
After a short film about our enduring fascination with time, I took a self-guided tour through a short “time tunnel” of about a dozen clocks, including a 1680 specimen from Bavaria and an electric model from 1936. Next came a chronological tour, beginning with a replica of Stonehenge, which some archaeologists believe was built to measure time by tracking the movements of the sun and moon. It’s followed by examples of Chinese and Egyptian water clocks, sundials, hourglasses and other nonmechanical clocks.
The museum’s main focus is on 19th-century American timepieces, but it also displays earlier English tallcase clocks, similar to grandfather clocks, and timepieces from Asia and Europe.
The most fun item may be the 11-foot-high, 8-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep clock that Stephen Engle completed in 1878. Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” it was carted from town to town throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic to entertain folks, who paid 10 cents to see it. The clock features 48 moving figures carved from wood, including Satan, Jesus, the 12 apostles, Death and Revolutionary War legend Molly Pitcher. Engle jammed life’s cycles into his timepiece as well, and carved himself representing “Middle Age.” Demonstrations of the clock’s movements are given every hour.
The museum gets about 13,000 visitors a year, and I was told that most people spend about an hour visiting. I clocked in at 11:14 a.m. on my souvenir timecard and punched out at 2:32 p.m.
Then I visited the library and research center in the same building. Armed with a pocket watch that my late father-in-law carried in World War II, I browsed the stacks for books on similar timepieces. Museum curator Carter Harris joined me and offered to remove the watch face. As he scrutinized the watch under a magnifying glass and gave the winding stem a single turn, it started, for the first time in years, to tick.
Harris surmised that the watch had been used to run railroads during the war. Hmm. Charles “Shuey” Shuman served in the South Pacific repairing military vehicles. But running trains? After the war, he raced souped-up stock cars. I figure that’s probably where he used that watch.
Having had my fill of time, I decided to learn more about pre-museum Columbia. So I headed to Wright’s Ferry Mansion, the oldest house in town. Built in 1738, it sits on an idyllic city acre and is furnished in the style of about 1750. On a massive kitchen table lies “The Compleat Housewife,” the first cookbook/household-hints compendium published in the United States. “You might find pigeon in oyster sauce and pigeon in heavy cream” in it, the tour guide noted.
English Quaker Susanna Wright, the original owner of the house, was an intellectual who hobnobbed with Benjamin Franklin and raised silkworms for the then-thriving silk industry. The only evidence of such industry today is upstairs, where a white silk apron is draped across a bed.
The next morning, I visited the remnants (pun intended) of Columbia’s silk industry: In the former Ashley and Baily silk mill, I entered the brand-new (opened June 4) Turkey Hill Experience, which traces the timeline of the Frey family and its Turkey Hill Farm and Dairy, of ice cream/iced tea fame. (The actual dairy is about six miles away.)
The Experience offers a free exhibit on river communities plus one on dairy farming and cool cow facts (example: “What are cuds?”). For $11.50, you get more exhibits — mostly hands-on or interactive, such as milking a fake cow and making a TV commercial — as well as ice cream and tea samples. And you can create your own ice cream flavor via computer.
The Experience may be Columbia’s future, but I craved some non-interactivity, so I made my way to Burning Bridge Antiques Market, where I found crocheted doilies, Johnny Cash records and even a white church pulpit. A block away, my time trip continued at Hinkle’s Pharmacy, open since 1893. Hinkle’s soda-fountain menu is stuck at about 1950, with items such as Jell-O and fried cauliflower. I loved it. My cream-of-crab soup included bits of shell, just like Mom’s.
When Hinkle’s was newer, I thought to myself as I savored my lunch, Columbia whirred with activity. Today, time seems to go slowly. As a big-city visitor, I’m perfectly okay with that.
360 Chestnut St.
Built in 1897, this bed-and-breakfast features four rooms from $79.
647 Union St.
Eleven rooms from $95.
1030 Lancaster Ave.
Bar/restaurant plus takeout. Burgers, subs, Philly-style steak sandwiches $1.30 to $6.55.
261 Locust St.
Diner food extraordinaire. Sandwiches from $2.75, breakfasts from $3.50, dinners from $7.
514 Poplar St.
Open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission $8.
301 Linden St.
Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Labor Day. Self-guided tour tickets $11.50 adults, $9.50 ages 5-17 and 62-plus, 4 and younger free. Tickets not required for creamery/cafe.
38 S. Second St.
Open May through October: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Guided tour only, $5.
Shuman is a former editor at The Post.