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Memory time: GM wood preserved in Janesville-made clocks

July 22, 2019
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In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019, photo, a finished clock with an inscription describing the history of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., sits in Chris Wells' workshop in Janesville. The clock is made out of materials from the former plant. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)
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In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019, photo, a finished clock with an inscription describing the history of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., sits in Chris Wells' workshop in Janesville. The clock is made out of materials from the former plant. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Employees of Janesville’s General Motors plant probably didn’t pay much attention to the maple paneling in the building’s foyer.

But Chris Wells of Janesville and his son, Kevin, noticed it.

“It was the prettiest wood in the entire building,” Chris Wells said.

The two retrieved about 2,000 board feet of the paneling earlier this spring before workers demolished the last standing section of the storied plant.

Now, they are melding time and history in clocks made from the wood.

Each timepiece, with a maple face and back laminated on pine, sells for $85, which includes shipping and handling. The clocks are slightly more than 8 inches long and 4 1/2 inches high.

“My aim is to get one in the hands of the people who actually worked there,” Chris Wells told The Janesville Gazette.

He has placed ads in newspapers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Fort Worth, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri, where workers transferred when the Janesville plant was idled, then closed.

As of earlier this month, 150 clocks were finished.

The back of each has a laser photo from the 1950s and an inscription, which pays tribute to the “hard work and dedication of the assembly plant workers.”

Sometimes Chris gets up at 2 a.m. to cut, finish and insert clock movements in more than a dozen clocks before the sun comes up.

“My dad used to say there’s a lot to be done instead of lying in bed,” Chris Wells said.

He owns CW Contracting of Janesville, which does both commercial and residential remodeling, construction and landscaping.

But he also carries on a tradition, started by his father, Al Wells, who died last year.

Al was the family’s original clockmaker, who came up with the idea of making clocks out of the wood in historic buildings. Jeannette, his wife of more than 50 years, supported his effort.

“They were a team,” Chris Wells said.

He remembers his dad crafting his first clock out of wood from the stage of the 1870 Myers Theater, which was torn down in 1977.

“Dad watched people come and take a brick from the old theater,” Chris Wells said. “He thought he could do something nicer than a brick. His idea was to make a memento with a purpose.”

Al figured a timepiece would be functional and gazed upon regularly.

He built a large mantel clock, which took about a month to make and sold for $400.

“We couldn’t sell them,” Chris Wells said. “Dad got frustrated and went to the band saw and changed the whole way we did things. Instead of making a big fancy clock for a lot of money, we made smaller, simpler pieces.”

Since then, Chris Wells said the family has saved the wood from a few hundred old buildings by transforming it into clocks.

“We don’t pay anything for the wood, ever,” Chris Wells said. “This is donated wood. We do the work and resell it.”

In Janesville, lumber has come from historic churches, a longtime bar, the country club and even a grand tree.

The Bower City elm stood on Milwaukee Street and was one of the city’s oldest and biggest trees to die of disease.

The Wells family also has gone well beyond the city to preserve pieces of the past.

Among the lumber they collected are boards from a tobacco warehouse in Edgerton, a lead and zinc mine in Shullsburg and the Hotel Washington in Madison.

Some wood came from remodeling projects.

When the massive World War II battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin had its decks refurbished in the late 1980s, the Wells family acquired some of the old lumber.

Chris Wells held up a piece of weathered teak.

“It was in every battle the ship went through,” he said.

The family documents each historic site with photos of family members getting the wood.

“Documentation is an important part of what we do,” Chris Wells said.

Kevin represents the third generation of clockmakers.

He got his start shoveling sawdust out of the shop after school.

He is excited about the GM pieces.

“I put in a lot of time and effort to get them going,” Kevin Wells said.

He added:

“I see a lot of significance in these clocks. A lot of my friends while growing up had family who worked at the plant.”

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com

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