Behind the Times in Sewanee


This past Sunday morning, I went up into Breslin Tower here in Sewanee to watch the clock being re-set for Daylight Savings Time. Keith Henley, who has been overseeing the clock for the past two years and seems to know everything about clocks in general, was generous enough to show me around.  Below are some pictures I took, with a few a remarks, and following them, a video of the Breslin Tower bells themselves, ringing out noon.  The beautiful picture above, better than any of mine, is from a blog-post on, with a very fine rumination on Sewanee time.

Breslin Tower, which sits beside Convocation Hall at the center of campus, was donated by Thomas and Elizabeth Breslin in memory of their daughter, Lucy, who had died at the age of eight in 1876.


It was modeled after the tower at Magdalen College in Oxford, which you can see in the background in this photo taken in the Botanical Gardens.


If you want to go up into the tower, you have to like climbing up really steep stairs.  It’s sixty feet up.  These iron ones at the top are reportedly from a decommissioned naval vessel.


Once you get into the room, with its padded wool carpet, you can see the rather large clock mechanism.


It was made by the Seth Thomas Clock Company, of Connecticut.  I love the original bronze plaque.


The idea of being “behind the times” is just too much fun, like being the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.IMG_0918


The gears of the clock are intricate, and fascinating. They also make a very satisfying sound.




Sometimes pennies are put on the pendulum, to help adjust its swing. These particular pennies have been used for over half a century.


An old hand in my hand–it’s quite light.  “Gotta be light,” I’m told. “Too much weight will throw off the gears.”  We can’t decide if it’s pine or balsa.


Keith is good enough to take me up to see, and hear, the bells.  The print below is a framed copy from the 1907 Cap and Gown, Sewanee’s yearbook.


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The largest bell weighs 2003 lbs.  The inscription reads, “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of Charlotte Ferris Douglas, Anno Domini 1900.  Vae Mihi Si Non Evangelisavero.” The Latin comes from St. Paul: “Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1st Corinthians 9:16, KJV).  The worn spot below is from where the hammer struck the bell for 112 years.  “Seemed like that spot could use a break,” I was told.


The views from the belfry, into Guerry Garth and across toward All Saints Chapel and Shapard Tower, are especially impressive.



But of course what’s best is being able to listen to the chimes up close.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Family, Nautical, Numismatics, Oxford, Sewanee, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Behind the Times in Sewanee

  1. Spencer Tomb says:

    Thank you very much!
    Spencer Tomb,
    Class of ’65

  2. George Eldred says:

    Thanks so much! I got to go up there two or three times during Paul Engsberg’s custody. George
    Class of ’77

  3. frogprof says:

    When we first moved to Sewanee [1973], I thought I’d never get used to “the bells, the bells!” … and when we left 5 years later, I missed them desperately. Never got up into the bell tower — thank you for this visit!

  4. Alan Maclachlan says:

    Breslin’s chimes are one of the signature experiences of Sewanee…whether tolling muffled through a late-night fog at a distance or clearly to signal the end of morning’s classes in The Quad. I, too, was privileged to be able to go into the clock room and listen to its workings, and then to feel the stone walls reverberate with the pealing of the bells above our heads. Thanks for this evocative piece of writing, and for the photographs which accompany it.

  5. W Harold Bigham says:

    When I was a student, I always wanted to go up there. Anytime I am on the Mountain, those bells bring tears to my eyes: the visits with Mama and Daddy, my children and grandchildren, Carol Ann attending my graduation two weeks before our marriage, a blessed atmosphere, ringing of the bells after a football win, the time spent in the Library (Convocation Hall) at the base of Breslin. “We look before and after and pine for what is not…” YSR!

  6. Gerald Smith says:

    Beautifully done, Chris. A tribute to my favorite spot on campus. The clock and Meneely bells were given by The Rev. George William Douglas, Commencement speaker in 1899, in memory of his mother whose illness kept her from attending church but who enjoyed hearing bells ring. The clock apparatus and bells were installed in 1900, hoisted to the clock room by a rope and pulley rig drawn by mules.

    • Thanks so much, Jerry, for the information and the kind words. Do you happen to know anything about the stairs? Keith had heard they were from a ship, but didn’t happen to know any more.

      • George Eldred says:

        Paul Engsberg told me that they were from a ship. They certainly LOOK the part.

      • They really do look, and feel, like a ship’s staircase. I’m on a mission to find out which ship. It boggles the mind to think of these stairs being on the water somewhere, and now suspended in a tower in Tennessee!

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  8. Excellent posting about Breslin tower. I took the liberty of using one of the photos as the group photo in the Facebook group “If you grew up in Sewanee, you’ll remember …” I hope you don’t mind:

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  10. Lee Prout says:

    During my student years (1957-61), I never entered the “aerie, wherein reside the bells, that measure out our days”(a completely fabricated quotation). Reading / viewing your tribute was the next best thing. As an architect, I have long had a great affection for Breslin Tower……and for Covocation Hall, which was our library (& it really was a lovely space for it). I learned much I did not know about the bells and clock, including exposure to the framed poem from the 1907 Cap & Gown. I would like to reproduce your photo of the poem for a work-in-progress, if you wouldn’t mind. I’m forwarding a link to your posting, to my classmates, in order that they may derive the same enjoyment that I did.
    Lee Prout C’61

    • Dear Lee– Many thanks for your kind message. I’m glad you liked the post. It was a lot of fun to visit the top of Breslin Tower– please feel free to reproduce the photo of the Cap and Gown poem. I’d love to see the work in progress when you’ve finished. Your fabricated quotation is pretty good, by the way!

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