Many of the clocks on view in the exhibition “For All Time: Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum” came to the Museum from the collection of Willis R. and Ruth Michael of York, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Michael’s gift of more than 140 pieces from the collection her husband assembled forms the core of the Museum’s timepiece holdings.
In the face of fast-paced change in the early 1900s, many Americans sought to celebrate past ingenuity and seemingly simpler times by collecting antiques. A similar impulse may have prompted Willis R. Michael (1894-1969), a tool and die maker and entrepreneur, to start his collection of antique American, European and other clocks. Mr. Michael purchased his first one in the late 1930s, a tall case clock crafted in the late 1700s by George Hoff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As Michael later described, he soon “got the bug.” His collection grew to include hundreds of items including clocks, watches, automata, clockmaking tools and both antique and modern books about horology. Drawing on his skills as a machinist, Michael learned how to repair, clean, and ultimately, make clocks.
The Michaels displayed clocks in every room of their home. They also built an extensive display area to help share these treasures with others. The photo of the Michael’s clock display area was likely taken at a dinner they hosted during Willis Michael’s tenure (1949-1951) as president of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.
A few years after Mr. Michael died in 1969, Mrs. Michael began making a series of gifts from her husband’s collection to the Museum, then newly founded by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. Many years before, in 1924, Michael had joined his local Masonic lodge. From then until his death, he was an active member in both the York and Scottish Rites. He received the 33° in Boston in 1942. Mrs. Michael likely gave many clocks from Willis Michael’s collection to the Museum in honor of her husband’s lifelong involvement in Masonry.
The Museum’s collection is much richer for the Michaels’ enthusiasm and generosity.
Willis Michael in his Workshop, 1940s or 1950s. Red Lion, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Michael Nailor.
Willis Michael’s “Clock and Watch Museum.” Red Lion, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by Henry M. Blatner. National Heritage Museum.