The 1906 Pella Webster School Clock

Written by Jim Emmert, submitted through Jennifer Van Kooten, Executive Director Pella Preservation Trust

When the original Webster School was vacated and torn down in 1952, one of the teachers obtained the old school clock that had hung there for decades.  Keith Emmert taught 8th grade mathematics in this building, starting in 1949, and moved to the new school in 1952. While Keith never mentioned how he got the old clock, the word SOLD is written on the back so it would seem he got it through a school auction.

This clock hung in Keith Emmert’s basement where it was the main time piece in his woodworking shop for 17 years. In 1969, Keith gave this clock to his daughter, Jan, who was moving to St. Charles, MO, where it resided for five years. The clock then moved with Jan to Florida in 1974 and at some point it quit running and just hung on the wall.

Pella Webster Elementary School, photo curtesy of Bruce Rietveld
The Students helping to move supplies into the new Webster School in 1952

Keith Emmert

was born in 1922 and spent his childhood on the family farm near Killduff, Iowa.  He graduated from Sully High School in 1938 at the age of 16 and then attended AIB in Des Moines. He had a strong passion for flight and that is what brought him to Pella.  He earned his pilot license at Pella Airport while taking classes at Central College and and became a flight instructor.  During WWII he put his skills to use for three years as a B-25 flight instructor in the U.S. Air Force.  After the war, he married and decided to finish his education at Central College. Keith graduated from Central College in 1949 with a degree in mathematics and over the course of 35 years served as a teacher and, for a short time, principal of Webster School. He retired from the Pella school system as an 8th grade math and mechanical drawing teacher in 1984.

School Clock in need of repair

The school clock came back to Pella in 2019, for Keith’s son, Jim, to try his hand at repairing it. The clock was oiled and continued keeping accurate time, but sometime in 2021 the clock mainspring was wound up and snapped. Once again, the clock became dormant for another year, until November of 2022, when Jim contacted a clock company about possible repairs. However, the estimated cost of total repair was twice the value of the clock, so that was not going to happen.

In December of 2022, Jim disassembled the clockwork to gain access to the main spring.  During the disassembly, he discovered the clock was manufactured by the Waterbury Clock Company, which was incorporated in 1857.  Waterbury would frequently change their paper label and trademark stamp on their clocks. It was only during the year of 1905 that a black label was used on Waterbury clocks, and it was during 1906 the Waterbury trademark stamp ended the tail of the letter y, under the letter u. During all other years, the tail extended to the letter r. Therefore, it would seem the Old Webster School Clock consisted of a clockwork manufactured in 1906 that was placed in a clock cabinet manufactured in 1905, thus making it about 117 years old.

The clockwork was cleaned and the main-spring repaired.  It was interesting that the design included a piece of spring steel wire that was soldered to the mainspring gear, used to lock the gear when being wound. This wire had come loose and needed to be re-soldered to the gear.  All moving parts were oiled, and the clockwork reassembled. After several days of fine adjustments to the pendulum, the old Webster school clock was hung in Jim Emmert’s radio room and has kept accurate time ever since.

117 year old Webster School Clock

Keith Emmert's Hobbies and Woodworking

But more about Keith Emmert; in 1950, when Keith was 28 years old, he contracted polio and lost the use of his left leg. In the summer of 1952, he travelled to the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Georgia for therapy and rehabilitation and it was there that he greatly improved his ability to walk. However, the paralysis in his leg left him unable to fly and he turned to other hobbies and interests. He had a great curiosity, sense of humor and ability to adapt, so he enjoyed short-wave radio, photography, listening to music, travel, building and flying model airplanes  – but his most avid interest was woodworking.

Walnut Rolltop Desk made by Keith Emmert
Wooden Train made by Keith Emmert (around 5 feet long)

When Keith was 12-years old, he had received his first piece of woodworking equipment, a lathe. As time went on, he added many hand and power tools to his collection until he had an enviable wood-shop.  Throughout his life, he engaged in woodworking as a hobby and spent untold hours in his basement shop. He constructed many useful items for the family home, including built-ins and furniture. A good part of his year was spent building Christmas gifts for his children and grandchildren. He also refinished old family furniture, restoring it to its original beautiful condition. It was after his retirement in 1984 that he began building clocks – lots of clocks – of all different shapes and sizes, including several school clocks.

Walnut and Pine pendulum clock
Grandmother Clock
24 Hour Clock
World Clock
clock made by Keith Emmert and Hand Painted by Jim Emmert
New School Clock by Keith Emmert

Keith’s diminishing eyesight in later years from macular degeneration cut short his ability to enjoy his hobbies, but it never diminished his capacity to enjoy life.  Despite the adversities he faced, he focused on something positive every day. Mr. Emmert passed away in 2015 at the age of 93. His life was celebrated by his many family members, friends and former students, many of whom have the treasures he built as a reminder of how special  Keith Emmert was.

Pella Preservation Trust's mission is to protect and promote buildings, landscapes, and sites important to the heritage of Pella, Iowa... The old Webster building is lost but a small treasure from within was saved by one of Pella's long-time math teachers and craftsman, Mr. Keith Emmert. Craftsmanship is not something to be taken lightly, once an original is gone it can never be replace.

In the midst of the rubble of lost historic buildings,  some artifacts have continued to survive yet today. Hearing the story of this remnant from the past helps to share our heritage with the next generation and the special people of Pella who inspired us, mentored many of us and was a wonderful friend who never seemed to forget any of his students. Even though,  I did not excel in his math class, he always called me by name, even in his 90’s. Mr. Emmert encouraged me to engage in my creativity and love for woodworking. He remembered my family and always asked how they were doing too. He was one of the life long Pella School teachers that made a lot of difference in our community. I still sometimes use that drafting lettering. Thank you, Jim Emmert for sharing some of your dad’s talent with our group. We appreciate  your talent, repair abilities and pride in the clock from the old Webster School 1875-1952 -Jennifer

Mr. Emmert's math classroom was on the east side of the Pella Middle School, now the Pella Community Center.