Inmates doing time help restore courthouse timepiece

By George Plaven / The East Oregonian

Published Apr 18, 2014 at 12:01AM

PENDLETON — While crews are nearly finished restoring the historic Morrow County Courthouse clock tower in Heppner, prison inmates in Pendleton put their expertise to the test by returning the actual clock to its original condition.

The clock, a Seth Thomas Model 15 originally manufactured in the early 1880s, was installed when the courthouse was first built in 1902. About 50 years ago, it was converted to run on electricity and more than half of the old mechanical parts were lost in the shuffle.

Gary Kopperud, licensed master clockmaker and owner of Pioneer Timepiece Co. in Pendleton, decided to take on the project through his clockmaker’s training program at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. The class, part of the prison’s workforce development effort, is one of the last of its kind across the country.

A small tour of Morrow County officials — including Judge Terry Tallman, Commissioner Leann Rea and independent contractor Rod Wilson of Wilson Construction Services — joined Kopperud on a tour of EOCI trade shops to learn how they all had a hand in returning the clock to its authentic, original state.

Machine and carpentry shops created exact replacements for pieces that could not be found. In a stroke of good fortune, Kopperud was also able to find a similar Seth Thomas model in New York with additional pieces to help complete the Morrow County clock.

Meanwhile, inmates in the clockmaker class learned how they could piece everything back together to complete the job. The class has about 10 new students enrolled in the last three months, along with five graduates of the class who serve as assistant teachers alongside Kopperud.

Together, they unveiled for the tour the county’s new (old) clock that will re-crown the courthouse in the coming months.

“It’s always an honor to work on something as prominent as a county’s only tower clock,” Kopperud said. “It’s very much a part of their history. They’re proud of their courthouse, their clock and their county.”

Refurbishing clocks is an exercise in absolute precision, Kopperud said. Every gear must have the exact number of teeth, and the pendulum measured at just the right length, in order to beat in time. One wrong step, and the seconds could tick away too fast or too slow.

“We expect perfection, but not much more,” Kopperud said with a laugh.

The EOCI clockmaker’s training class was formed by Kopperud in 1997, and has since graduated 35. Some who come out of the class have continued on in the trade, Kopperud said, and to his knowledge none of them have re-offended.

Kopperud’s class follows the same criteria and issues the same clockmaker certification that was previously issued by Oregon until 1981, when the State Board of Watchmakers was eventually phased out. EOCI is the only true clock- making school left around, he said.

Morrow County’s is the third tower clock offered to EOCI for repairs. The class also worked on the Umatilla County tower clock in Pendleton, as well as the clock in Petaluma, Calif., for the city’s 125th anniversary.

LuRay Batterton, a 52-year-old inmate from Lewiston, Idaho, is one of the graduate teachers in the class. He said the class has changed his life, and helped him learn to work with people.

“It gives you a feeling of accomplishment,” Batterton said.

While the class still must hand-polish and paint some pieces on the Morrow County clock before they can finish, they have already proved they can get it running again. Overall, they are about two weeks ahead of schedule, he said.

Samuel Redding, 36, another inmate graduate from the class, said everybody takes pride in their work and developing their skills for after release.

“We hope this clock provides the people of Morrow County with a source of pride, and centerpiece for their courthouse.”