Story By: Kathryn Wood.
Video By: Maggie Ferguson.
Tick-tock tick-tock. This sound bounces off the walls inside of the historic Gingerbread House in Opelika. Two rooms on both sides of the foyer hold grandfather clocks, anniversary clocks, cuckoo clocks and mantel clocks, just to name a few. The Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, is housed by the Gingerbread House. Owned by John and Margaret Hendricks of Auburn, Alabama, the museum boasts hundreds of antique clocks.
John’s clock shop in Auburn had been open for about two years in 1997. One day, a woman came into his shop that changed his perspective on his business. John showed the woman around a room in the shop. He was trying to create new customers and teach people about clocks. The woman told him, “‘You know, all of these clocks and the way you have them arranged reminds me of a museum,’” John recounted.
“It just hit me at that moment, ‘you know what? That’s a great idea. That’s what I ought to do… is create a museum atmosphere and teach clock making in a museum environment.”
But that was then, this is now. The grand opening of the Gingerbread House as Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum took place in June 2008. John welcomes daily customers and visitors and specializes in repairing American, German, French and English clocks.
The name, “Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum,” couldn’t be more fitting. Margaret recalled naming the shop and museum. “Basically, we were trying to come up with a name that reflected the fact that it was antique clocks,” said Margaret.
“I liked the idea of the ‘Old Timers Clock Shop,’ and he wanted the part of ‘Old Timers & Chimers,’” said Margaret. “He always wanted part of it to be a museum, even when he just had a shop.”
The clocks in the museum each tell a story of their own. However, people with taste pick and choose favorites. Two of John’s favorite clocks are upstairs in the museum.
The first clock is a Henry Terry clock. Henry Terry was the son of Eli Terry, known by many as the “father of the clock industry in the United States.” The clock, crafted about 1830, is John’s favorite because of its history. “It was made by the son of the father of the clock industry in the United States, and to even have the opportunity to buy that clock and to have it here is really very special.”
The second clock is the IBM master clock. The clock was made about 1900. It winds itself, with the help of some modern technology, Duracell batteries. This process takes place once each hour.
The Seth Thomas clock, which looks similar to the Henry Terry clock, dates back to between 1810 and 1840. Thomas apprenticed with Eli Terry. Thomas went on to become internationally famous for the clocks he created. This American clock uses the same wooden movement invented by Eli Terry.
An English Wall Dial, made about 1860 in England, occupies a large space on a table. It doesn’t strike or chime.
Perhaps the most interesting clock was one that John only likes visitors to see at the museum. While he won’t allow pictures, he does allow a glimpse into its character.
“This is one of a kind. There’s not another clock in the world like this,” said John. “It’s called the ‘Music Conductor.’ This is pure Americana. This clock was made…in the hills of Nashville, up in the Appalachians, by a lil ol’ clock maker. It’s all homemade, handmade. He designed it, he painted it, he did it all himself.”
Clock repairing classes have been offered at the shop and museum before, but they are no longer offered. Many people are not willing to sacrifice distractions to learn the art of clock repairmen.
“They think they have the aptitude, and then they come in and try to do this or try to learn, and they don’t have the patience to do it,” said John.
“It takes a tremendous amount of patience to repair a clock. You have to know what you’re doing, and know that you know. That’s an important phrase, ‘To know that you know.’ It takes a lot of time…and today’s public and society is a computer society. Everything is instant gratification,” said John.
John added, “You can’t be distracted by TVs and cell phones and everything else, internet, you name it, and try to work on a clock. It’s impossible.”
John repaired his first clock when he was 14 years old. A William L. Gilbert shelf clock, which now sits in his family room at his residence. However, his interest in clocks didn’t peak until much later.
“My really deeply involved interest didn’t get started until the late ‘80s, early ‘90s,” John said. “I bought some books on clocks because I was looking to retire from the business I was in. I had been in financial planning and insurance for almost 30 years. During that time, I still had this interest in clocks, and I would read about them from time-to-time. I was still fascinated with them.”
Toni Ambrose, a regular customer at Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, inherited five clocks from her father. She has taken all of them over the course of two years to be fixed by John. Her husband, Eddie Ambrose, shares her affinity for clocks. Together, the couple owns 12 clocks.
The first time Toni went to the Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum was to have a clock repaired. “He has a deep knowledge of all kinds of clocks,” said Toni. “He knows the history. It’s fun to listen to the different stories of how he got this clock or that clock.”
Toni is fond of the clocks from the 1800s. The grandmother clock that sits in her hallway is from Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum. “If you tell him the kind of clock you like, he’s going to help you pick out a very good one,” said Toni.
Toni, a customer for three years, said, “Just to go in there to enjoy, and look and talk to John, I’ll go any time. He’s a caring person, and we consider him a good friend.”
Mac Nelson, a neighbor since 1974, crafted woodwork in Old Timers. Mac said, “He has to be very meticulous and kind of picky. So he’s very demanding, I think, of himself and those that work for him, from time-to-time. With clocks, there’s really not much room for error. It takes someone with lots of patience and lots of dedication to get it right.”
Like Toni, Mac sees John’s passion for clocks. “He’s not just interested in making the clock work,” said Nelson. “He loves the history of each clock, and he can tell you when it was made and where and what type of movement it has, and the history of that movement.”
Old Timers and Chimers Clock Shop and Museum is located at 405 S. Ninth St. in Opelika, Alabama. The store hours are Tuesday-Thursday 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Friday 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. and Saturday by appointment. Museum admission is $6 per person. For groups of 10 people or more, it is $5 per person. For groups of senior citizens, tours must be scheduled at least three days prior to tour.
The historic “Gingerbread House” in Opelika, Alabama is nothing short of a national treasure. Built in 1865, the house is one of three registered gingerbread houses in the United States. Looking at it now, one would never imagine it being anything other than picture-perfect. However, that has not always been the case.
Peter Weiss, associate professor at the McWhorter School of Building Science at Auburn University and former president of the Opelika Historic Preservation Society (OHPS), saved the structure during its worst days.
“The house was in total disrepair, an absolute mess,” Peter said. “I went to the preservation society of Opelika, asked them if they’d be interested in buying the structure to save it.”
Also known as the “Edwards House,” the Gingerbread House had been in the Edwards family for several generations. Peter sent letters to the heirs of the Edwards. According to Peter, the process of getting the Gingerbread House into the hands of the OHPS took “a number of years.”
The OHPS bought the Gingerbread House. Peter and D.K. Ruth put architecture students and senior building science thesis students to work on the project. “We went in to the Gingerbread House and tore everything rotten out of it and restructured from the ground up and stabilized the system,” Peter said.
Working on the Gingerbread House was an excellent learning experience for the students. “We showed them how to re-cut and re-do the gingerbreading and re-make all of the cute parts. We re-built the windows, we re-did all of that sort of stuff.”
The students and professors set the foundation that kept the house alive. “Our job was to stabilize it,” Peter said. After that work, the OHPS sold the property. Those owners eventually sold the property to John Hendricks, who restored the historic home. “He spent a lot of time and a lot of money doing it, but he did a great job,” Peter said.
The Gingerbread House is now home to the Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, LLC. John Hendricks, who owns the shop and museum with his wife, Margaret Hendricks, was looking to relocate his clock shop from Auburn, Alabama, to Opelika.
John had had some difficulty finding a place to house his clock shop. The journey from “Gingerbread House” to Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, LLC, begins.
John retrieved a newspaper from a display in the museum. A newspaper so old, the pages have yellowed. As he looks at the paper, he begins recounting his history with the Gingerbread House. “1976, I think is the year, and this is the first time I ever saw this house. I saw that picture,” said John. The picture was of the Gingerbread House during some of its worst years. Even through the black and white print, it was evident the house needed a miracle to survive.
John’s eye for potential saw the beauty of the Gingerbread House. “I just said, ‘My goodness! What a beautiful old house, why doesn’t somebody buy it and restore it?’” John stored the newspaper in a bedside drawer, where it stayed untouched for years.
Fast-forward a few decades. John was looking for a place to move his clock shop. Barbara Patton, president of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce and member of OHPS, had been helping Hendricks in his quest for a location for his clock shop.
One day, Barbara and John had walked in Opelika, looking out for potential locations. “I was getting very frustrated because I couldn’t find the building that I was looking for,” said John. “You know, you have this image in your mind, or a vision of the building or the type of building. I wanted an old house.”
John got in his car that day, frustrated that he still hadn’t found a place that would suit his vision.
Suddenly, things took a literal “turn” for the better. “I always turn right up on Avenue B, and this is the important part of the story,” said John. “I’d never been down this street in my life and I’d never seen this building in person.” John cranked the car and made his way to the traffic light where he always turned right onto Avenue B.
“That day, that moment, I drove straight across the intersection. Well, somebody else was driving,” said John. “I remember remarking out loud, ‘Lord, where are we going? There’s nothing down here!’”
John continued to drive. He noticed the Gingerbread House. The Gingerbread House from the paper that he had saved in the bedside drawer all those years ago. John was stunned. “I got chill bumps and I said…‘this is it, Lord. This is it,’” John said. “True story. I got chill bumps. I get chill bumps telling the story, just thinking about it.”
Barbara remembers the day John told her that he had found the Gingerbread House. Barbara said, “I just thought, that it was just made for him,” Barbara said. “They did a lot of work to it because it was in terrible shape. He did an enormous amount of work to it,” Barbara said.
“It’s an architectural treasure,” Barbara added. “It’s one of the few left in the state of Alabama.”
Barbara loved the idea of the Gingerbread House as a clock shop and museum. “It makes a great museum, and it fits with his vintage clocks,” Barbara said. “The fact that he restores clocks and repairs them, it was a perfect fit for him. We wanted him over here. It was like he belonged.”