Dean Kahn

Timeless collection of clocks and watches leaving Bellingham

The West Coast Clock and Watch Museum, currently housed in Whatcom Museum’s Old City Halll, will move to just north of San Diego in a few weeks.
The West Coast Clock and Watch Museum, currently housed in Whatcom Museum’s Old City Halll, will move to just north of San Diego in a few weeks.

A museum-quality collection of antique clocks and watches is leaving Bellingham for a new home in Southern California at the end of February or soon thereafter.

The West Coast Clock and Watch Museum has quietly occupied several glass-covered display cases on the third floor of Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall since 2000. While the rent was free, the space was limited and the location didn’t generate much foot traffic except when organized tours came through.

“We were unable to grow in this location,” said Ron Kowalski of Bellingham, a clock museum officer and a longtime collector.

The West Coast collection, said to be the largest west of the Mississippi River, is supported by members of a West Coast chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, which has its own museum in Columbia, Pa., west of Philadelphia.

Some West Coast members live in Northwest Washington and British Columbia, but many more live in California.

One of the newer chapter members is Rod Groenewold, director of the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif. When Kowalski sent a letter to members of the national group about the need for a new home for the West Coast collection, Groenewold suggested that it move to the engine museum’s grounds, which are within easy driving distance of LEGOLAND California and Disneyland.

“It’s just on the fringe of the touristy area,” Kowalski said.

The 40-year-old engine museum is on 55 acres of rolling farmland leased from San Diego County. Along with working displays of old-time farm equipment, groups active in model railroads and such traditional crafts as blacksmithing and hand-weaving also have exhibits and activities there.

With the offer of free use of about 2,000 square feet of space, plus room to erect their own larger building in the future, Kowalski said the offer from Groenewold was too good to refuse.

“It’s a loss for Bellingham, but down there we’re going to get several hundred thousand visitors a year,” Kowalski said. “We couldn’t get 40,000 through Bellingham in 15 years.”

A final date to see the collection in Old City Hall hasn’t been set because the clocks and watches won’t be moved until display space for them is built and ready in California, said Ernie Lopez of Keyport, executive director and curator of the West Coast museum.

Lynden fair connection

Kowalski, 75, worked in construction management. Years ago, he had a business display space at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden. By happenstance, Whatcom Museum occupied a nearby space. They talked. Clock and watch fanciers were looking for a West Coast home for a public display. The museum had room on the third floor. A rent-free deal was struck.

Our mission is to see that the knowledge of clock repair and horology in general doesn’t die out.

Ron Kowalski, West Coast Clock and Watch Museum

The West Coast museum has about 200 items on display in Old City Hall, and another 300 or so in storage. The museum owns about a third of the collection, with the others on loan from members.

Items in the collection, which date from to the 1680s through the 1920s, include:

▪ A clock from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with a Ferris wheel on top. The fair featured the original circular ride built by George Ferris.

▪ An organ clock that plays various tunes Mondays through Saturdays, and hymns on Sundays.

▪ A clock in a man wearing a hat; on the hour, his hat rotates slightly, igniting a match held high in his right hand.

Kowalski first became interested in clocks when he was 8 years old. He took apart an alarm clock from a church sale, made drawings of the component pieces, and successfully reassembled it.

“I was fascinated with mechanical things,” he said.

As he began collecting antique clocks starting in the 1970s, he came to admire the craftsmanship and technical wizardry of people who designed, built and repaired clocks and watches without electric tools.

That’s another reason he’s excited about the move. Members are busy raising money to erect a large building at the Southern California site, one large enough for full display of the West Coast collection, plus room for new acquisitions and, likely, a library and classroom space.

“Our mission is to see that the knowledge of clock repair and horology in general doesn’t die out,” Kowalski said.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Old City Hall

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.

Admission: $10 general; $8 for students, military and seniors; $4.50 for children 2 to 5; free for children under 2; free for museum members. Every Thursday is $5 admission.

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