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Dodge Connection: The tick of a clock, the beat of a heart

Dodge Connection: The tick of a clock, the beat of a heart

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Banjo Clock Image.JPG

A gold-trimmed lock, one of the oldest antiques in the home, was painted more than two centuries ago.

A delicate, gold-trimmed clock with the Greek god of the sun painted on the clock’s glass base, draws the eyes of every visitor who ventures into the Historic General Dodge House. The oldest antique in the home, the timepiece was meticulously designed, crafted, and painted more than two centuries ago and it works perfectly.

But it does not run. It does not tell time, nor does it chime. It’s dead silent.

Yet, for many, many years, this same clock tracked the ebbs and flows of a timeless love affair.

The year is 1854. A young Grenville M. Dodge, a dashing 23 years old, is in love. His work leading a survey crew with the Illinois Central Railroad has taken him to Peru, Illinois. The town consists of just under 2,000 citizens, having been incorporated three years prior. Steamships trudging up the Illinois River provide the town’s lifeblood. Peru is in the right place at the right time and industrialization is beginning to take hold.

Indeed, that’s one of the factors that attracts Ruth Anne Browne’s family to relocate to Peru from their home in Pennsylvania. Considered a real beauty in her day, Ruth Anne is graced with “lovely locks of brown hair and striking blue eyes,” an attractiveness she retains her whole life.

Grenville and Ruth Anne meet and begin their courtship. Dodge is immediately taken with the multifaceted nature of Ruth’s character — both culturally refined, yet equipped for frontier life. She loves classical music, the opera, and fine literature. She rides a horse with the confidence of a man and can even out-shoot most of them. Dodge has found his girl! Ruth Anne, in turn, is attracted to Dodge’s shy diffidence and good education which stood in sharp contrast to other suitors in the rough-and-tumble town of Peru.

They marry in Dodge’s home state of Massachusetts in May of that year. Dodge’s parents, Sylvanus and Julia Dodge, preparing to join their son on the frontier, present the couple with a most extravagant, even reckless, wedding gift: a beautiful “banjo” clock, crafted by its inventor, North America’s preeminent clock-maker and Massachusetts native, Simon Willard.

Still valued today, Willard’s clocks adorn the United States Capitol and Supreme Court. He made clocks for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom he befriended.

The extravagance of such a wedding gift speaks to the hope and pride Dodge’s parents have in this young romance. The clock, crafted in 1802 or 1803, cost around $45 (nearly $2,000 in today’s dollars), a tidy sum for Dodge’s parents, who sometimes struggle to make ends meet. That’s why the young Dodge would treasure the timepiece over the duration of his lifetime. And why, when he builds his home here in Council Bluffs 15 years later, he has a nook crafted for the clock halfway up an elegant oval stairway — in the center of the home for all to gaze upon this prized possession.

The clock ticks away as it marks the passing of time, seasons and years, just as the marriage of Grenville and Ruth Anne endures its own seasons.

Shortly following their vows, they homestead together with Dodge’s parents and brother in what is today Elkhorn, Nebraska, and are forced to abandon their claim by hostile Indians. They retreat to Omaha. Their brief stay in primitive and lawless Omaha was loathed by Mrs. Dodge. Soon, they move across the Missouri to the comparative civility of Council Bluffs.

In all these abodes: the frontier home, the barely habitable one-room cabin in downtown Omaha, and their next home in Council bluffs, the “tick-tock” of their wedding clock brought forth the gift of continuity, civility and elegance — the promise of a vibrant future.

Just a few short years later, Dodge is away fighting the Civil War with success after success and promotion after promotion, Ruth Anne frets, sick with worry. (Council Bluffs had its share of Rebel sympathizers, vocally critical of Dodge.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Dodge was active in the Soldier’s Aid Society. She provided care-packages to the troops and nursed the sick, many of whom suffered from contagions such as typhoid and measles. When the war ends, Dodge comes home safe and sound and the happy couple rejoices, but only for a short time.

No sooner does the war end than Dodge is called to expel the Native Americans from Nebraska and Wyoming in preparation for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad — for which he would serve as chief engineer.

Dodge continues to build railroads: sixteen railroads in six countries. For a time, the family lives in Marshall, Texas on a ranch Dodge owns while he builds a railroad from Texas to southern California. But the clock — their wedding clock — keeps ticking, and the couple begins to grow apart. Ruth Anne moves into a hotel in New York City with their youngest daughter.

Marriage to a man who accomplishes great things comes with a price. As with any timepiece, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

In 1907, Dodge, now 76 years-old, returns home to Council Bluffs to stay. Surely, the first thing he hears upon entering his home is a familiar “tick-tock.” Perhaps he thinks of his now long-dead parents. His youth. His wife. His grown daughters. His legacy. His wife again ... that love.

We’ve all had moments of deep thought, only to have the silence broken by the ever-present witness of a clock’s ticking ... that “sound of silence” the scriptures speak of.

Ruth Anne eventually returns to Council Bluffs to visit her husband in 1913. It’s the last time they will see each other. Their youngest daughter writes of this final encounter: “It is sweet to see Mother and Father united again and so happy together. They are the best of friends and enjoy talking over their early life together. To see them you would never know they had ever been separated.”

Their time has come full circle, but time is running out.

January 3, 1916: The time is 3 p.m. and the beloved banjo clock ticks away. Dodge has been suffering from bladder cancer for years. A trip to the Mayo Clinic has failed to buy much time.

When Dodge takes his final breath, someone — perhaps a staff member or a family member — stops all the clocks in the Dodge House, marking the very hour of his death. (Ruth Anne Dodge, too ill to travel from New York to Council Bluffs, follows her husband in death in a matter of months.) The image of the sun on the clock is fitting. It was sunset for Ruth Anne and Grenville’s earthly love affair.

The banjo clock works perfectly, but it no longer keeps time — it just bears witness. It’s dead silent.

— Tom Emmett is the executive director of the Historic General Dodge House.

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