Around the world there are places more steeped in history that Winnsboro, South Carolina. And there are unique aspects of thousands of cities that make them more unique and historically more important. There is one thing within the United States that no other city can claim however. The sleepy little town of little more than 3,000 residents can rightfully claim to have the oldest operational clock in the United States.
Unlike the Oldest Clocks in the World, historic and storied clocks built long before the United States was a thought, the Old Town Clock of Winnsboro was only built in 1837. When compared to Prague’s Astronomical Clock built in 1410 it is practically new, and may most certainly be considered somewhat plain. But in its bespoke elegance and simplicity it couldn’t be a better representative of the city in which it resides.
In 1795 the General Assembly of South Carolina authorized the construction of a market house, and a small wood building topped with a belfry was erected on the site. By the 1820’s the building proved to be insufficient and the market house was sold to Robert Cathcart. He in return donated the small piece of property in Washington Street and what has been called an old duck pond to the city for the new market. The new square would feature a larger market and the now famous clock tower.
The work of purchasing the clock from Alsace, France began around 1833 and it was erected on the land donated by Cathcart in the center of Washington Street in 1837. By the 1870’s the clock tower was in need of repair and the work fell to John Smart, a local African-American carpenter who is largely responsible for the present tower.
The town clock bell, like the clock itself was French but it unfortunately did not stand the test of time in the same way. During a fire in 1895 two men rang the bell so loudly that it cracked and needed restoration. It was sent to J. McShane of Philadelphia for repairs but when it was returned lacked the same beautiful silvery tone it once had. The tone was so different from the original in fact that it was widely considered to be a replacement bell of lesser quality rather than the original repaired bell.
Though it was originally built as a market and served as such for many years, the Town Clock has also served as a community meeting room, voting location, and a fire house. The Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce took residence on the second floor from 1947 to 2011.
A plaque at the clock reads: In memory of those early citizens of Winnsborough whose civic spirit prompted them to erect this town clock in the year of our Lord-1833
Winnsboro Town Clock Facts
- The clock and the tower are the focal points of the Historic Downtown Winnsboro walking tour.
- The building itself also houses the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce.
- The works for the clock were imported to Charleston by sailboat, and hauled to Winnsboro in wagons.
- The land where the clock resides was donated by Robert Cathcart.
- The clock’s mechanism was converted to electricity in the 1970s.
- The building is not accessible to the public.
- The bell was interestingly not used to chime the hours as much as it was to notify the public of opening of the market, fire, and approaching Union troops.
- The bell also rang when fresh meat was in the market (apparently that used to happen in lots of places).
- Geographical Coordinates: 34.38050000, -81.08638611