Spillville, Iowa. It’s a cute little town, with old world architecture, a water mill, and the feel of the Czech farmers who settled the area still present. Driving into town from the north along County W14, you’re greeted with what looks like a traffic circle around a gazebo with creamy-colored, sharp-edged support columns under a startling red terracotta roof. It’s a confusing arrangement until you realize that it’s a local tribute to service members from the area; the Sailors and Soldier’s Memorial Bandstand, dedicated 1921. It’s a pretty little thing, set right there in the middle of the road, with flowers and flags and a brass plaque (I had a tough time keeping my attention on my driving as I was circling around it – obeying the “Keep Right” signs).
And so it goes with the rest of Spillville.
What’s the story?
The Bily Clocks Museum is a red-and-yellowy-gray-brick building about halfway through town, standing tall and proud like an old-fashioned firehouse. Even with the aid of a GPS device and someone in the pickup who’d been there before, we almost missed the turn that leads to the rear-lot parking area. What saved us from sailing right on by was a small sign on the street corner that read “Clock Museum” with an arrow pointing right.
Fortunately there was no traffic behind us.
Next to the parking lot is a pole shed (or maybe a garage, I didn’t really take that close of a look) with donated objects, many of them from the 1800s. Jerry, Shane, and I spent some time marveling at the early voting machine, the horse-drawn hearse and fire engine, speculated on what a couple of the farm-style implements might be.
(I’d read that the Museum didn’t allow photographs; I wasn’t sure that the restriction didn’t apply here, too, so I forced myself to keep my picture-taking to a minimum.)
On our way to the entrance we also paused to take in the 1854 Bouska Schoolhouse and Log Cabin – a rather large exhibit, but not a reproduction; these are the very logs, beams, and siding that were used to first combine the buildings in 1861. It’s an amazing thing, to think of an entire family of nine sharing that one little room plus the loft!
We eventually found our way to the Museum proper. I don’t know what I was expecting when I followed Shane and Jerry in; a single room full of quietly-ticking clocks, perhaps. Darkened, of course, to protect the aging clocks kept strictly behind glass, with forbidding wood-paneled walls and a docent keeping a severe eye out for attempts to reach out, fingerprinting and smearing the display cases.
It was warm – a fine thing on a chilly autumn day – and bright. The entry way opened into the admissions area and gift shop; a narrow hallway to the immediate right leads to the museum. On the cashier’s counter was a plate of kolaches, a Czech pastry.
(I immediately went for the books in the corner – found one called “Bily Brothers: Wood Carvers and Clock Makers.” It’s written as the diary of Frank and Joe Bily’s mother, from when she was a mere seven years old, and continues throughout her life. It isn’t really her diary – which is a real pity; I’d give a lot to read that story! But given the amount of research and corroborative material that the author Duane Hutchinson put into it, the amount of thought he gave to the voices of the people whose stories he was trying to tell, it certainly could be. He seems to have a fine touch for the personalities of the Bilys and the inner thoughts of their mother Mary (Marie). I also picked up “The Bily Clocks of Spillville, Iowa” by Carole Riehle – that has marvelous pictures of the actual clocks!)
We got our admission tickets, and the gal behind the counter told us that we could explore the clock room, head upstairs to view the Bily brother’s other collections and the Antonin Dvorak exhibit, or start upstairs and then come down, and that she would come get us when she was going to give a tour and explanation of the clocks. Jerry had already gone ahead, and so Shane and I ambled down the hallway. I pointed out the pet rocks for sale in the window.
But for anyone with an appreciation for clocks, creative people, or complex objects created by hand, passing out of that hall and into the display area produces instant reverence. You can’t figure out where to look first. The cabinet holding their tools? The mantel-sized clocks hung securely on the building support posts? The plaques describing each item? Your eyes are drawn in a hundred different directions by colors and shine and intricate figures or scrollwork; historical figures and animals and odd shapes. Some quietly tick away to themselves, perhaps chiming the quarter-hour; others stand, towering tall and silent. And all, all, are in the open where they can be clearly seen, heard, appreciated. The ceiling-tall freestanding clocks are mostly behind a hip-high fence, and there are signs requesting that you not touch the clocks, but they are within reach.
You might whistle, low and soft; you might give voice to a whispered, “Oh, my…”; you might just draw a breath that isn’t quite a gasp. But you will react.
I wish I could show you – I wish you could see. But no pictures are allowed inside the museum, not even via cell phone, and I was crying over that fact in the back of my head the entire time we were there.
Shane took charge of shepherding me around the room, showing me his favorites. He pointed out the Apostle Clock: “These five are the ones that just blow my mind. See, if you stand over here you can see one of the apostles behind the door.” Twelve apostles, twelve hours.
And upstairs? A letter written in Antonin Dvorak’s own hand – apparently he stayed in this exact building during the summer of 1893! – music, mantel clocks, instruments, coins, shells, rocks, natural curiosities like porcupine quills and fetal pigs.
But, oh, the show-stealers are and always should be the clocks. Joe was the designer, Frank the carver; both would then put the clock together, and they wouldn’t start a new project until the current clock was done. All the colors on their clocks come from different kinds of wood, most of which they had on their own farm – American walnut, butternut, hard maple and oak; no stain was ever used, only turpentine and linseed oil to coat and protect the wood and give it a bit of a shine. And while they did order in the mechanical workings and music-box aspects of each (oh – except for the all-wooden clock, where Joe calculated precisely the teeth and circumference of each gear) these clocks were all created, carved, shaped and polished by hand. No cordless drills, no routers, no belt sanders.
So go for a visit. Marvel at the intricate work. And be sure and attend the tour, learn about the Bilys and hear their clocks sing.
The Bily Clock Museum
323 S. Main Street, Spillville, Iowa 52168
May through October: M-Sa 9:00 am – 5:00 pm; Sundays 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm
November thru April: By appointment.
There doesn’t seem to be a set pricing schedule; I’ve seen $6, we paid $9 each; best advice is to call ahead and ask!
Phone, (563) 562-3569; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org