Without nails or screws or training, and with homemade glue, the most unexpected and marvelous thing happened. Frank and Joseph Bily, a pair of bachelor brothers, carved and crafted some of the most beautiful, unique, intricate timepieces ever designed by untrained hands. For almost forty five years, from 1913 to 1957, when they weren’t busy running their family farm in northern Iowa, they carved and carved.
What you’re going to hear next, though, is what makes their story, not just unusual, but also stirring, heartening and thought provoking. They never sold the clocks, not even one, not even when in 1928 Henry Ford, the automaker who had an affinity for clocks and music boxes, upon hearing about their eight foot, five hundred pound American Pioneer History Clock, had offered them an astounding million dollars! Instead, they wanted to keep the collection in tact and stored in their barn.
Whoever wants to see them can come to Spillville, the brothers had said. Why did they say this? Well, if you go to Spillville, Iowa today to the Bily Clocks Museum, you’ll hear the director of the museum answer that question; Carol Riehle tells the tourists that the Bily brothers made the clocks for their sister and brother. It was the finest charity at work. Their older brother was mentally and physically impaired and couldn’t speak, and whenever he heard the sound of clocks he was beside himself with joy. If it made him happy, then the brothers were happy too. In the beginning, Frank and Joseph had never set out to make clocks, only to carve, but their brother’s happiness convinced them to take their carvings and put the clocks inside them. Their younger sister Anna stayed at home with the older brother always, even when the family went to church. The clocks were to be her inheritance so that when Frank and Joseph died she would have an income and would be able to continue caring for herself and their brother, if he outlived them.
You may be thinking that her income was to come from the sale of the clocks, but no. When the brothers said people could come to Spillville to see their clocks, people did, thousands of them, and the family gave tours and charged an admission fee of ten cents per person. Anna would hold out her apron and the coins were dropped in. She stored the money in tobacco tins and that money was to be her inheritance. But, Anna died suddenly from pneumonia. And their older brother had died before her. Frank and Joseph were so devastated at Anna’s passing that they no longer wanted to go on with the clocks. They would burn them. They lit a fire. First, they put in some statues and wood scraps, but a neighbor, who had seen the blaze, talked them out of it. Purchase a building in town, he suggested and move the clocks there. That they did in 1947 and bequeathed the entire collection to the town with the condition that after their death the entire collection stay housed together and never be sold.
Their generosity continued–after the brothers sold their house and moved to town, the new owners of the house found the tobacco tins in the attic filled with the money that had been collected from the admission fees. Frank and Joseph let the new owners keep the money, since Anna had passed away and there was no longer a need of it.
If you go to the Museum today, you’ll hear these and more wonderful stories including about how the family was inspired by Elizabeth Fry, a wealthy English Quaker who, in the 1800’s, visited prisons and used her wealth to feed and cloth needy women and children. She had no interest in accumulating money for the sake of it. The brothers felt the same way and were content with the income from their farm and the extra earnings from odd carpentry jobs and clearing snow off county roads. As a tribute to Elizabeth Fry, they carved a clock in her honor.
Join thousands of visitors each year to see the collection that captures a wide range of moments in history, from the Apostles, to Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, to pioneers and Native American Indians. Many of their clocks have meticulous carvings with fully animated wooden figures, chimes and music boxes. Be prepared to look up as some reach over nine feet tall.
The museum is open daily May through October, 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and Sundays 12:00-4:00. In April-November, Saturdays only from 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. From January through March, the museum is closed. You can find out more about the museum by calling them at (563) 562-3569. Their website is http://www.bilyclocks.org.
“When visitors come here,” Carol said, “almost everyone is astonished when they see the clocks. And when they hear the story about the the fire, people gasp. Some say they weren’t really expecting much, but when they see the clocks and hear the stories, they’re captivated.”
The legacy of the Bily family is a reminder of what is important in life, but sometimes forgotten. Theirs is an enduring testimony to kindness and to honoring what is irreplaceable and beyond value.
In 1913 when two brothers quietly took their mother’s treadle sewing machine and modified it to make a scroll saw, for which, by the way, they were later forgiven, something happened in the world– love and charity entered it more fully. And the fruit carries on.
These excellent videos have detailed close ups of some of the Bily clocks and plenty of interesting commentary.
NOTE: The segment on the clocks begins after 1 minute into the video.
Have you ever visited the Bily Clocks Museum? Let us know!
Photo #1 – The Bily Brothers – Esty.org
Photo #3 – Iowa Public Television
Photo #4 – PostCardy.com
Photo #5 – History of Travel Clock – esty.com
Photo # 6 – Violin clock honoring composer Antonin Dvorak