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A Step Back in Time


Fri, Mar 9th, 2001
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Monday, February 19, 2000

The elderly lady behind the counter says, "Here are your tickets. You must go upstairs now and when you hear the bell, you must come down and begin the tour. No one is allowed into the Clock Museum without a tour guide."

Upstairs in this large old brick house is a museum commemorating the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who spent the summer here with his family in 1893. He had been away from Czechoslovakia for a year working as director of the New York Conservatory of Music and was homesick for his countrymen. A friend told him about the Czech village of Spillville, Iowa and this house, which he could rent.

Spillville is about 35 miles southwest of Mabel. Joseph Spielman, a German immigrant, founded it as Spielville in 1854. Today, the town is smaller than it once was. It has only one restaurant/bar, a biker hangout, where my husband and I have just had cheeseburgers, tater-tots and beer. It has one small grocery store and a public square with a bandstand built in honor of World War II veterans. St. Wenceslaus Church, built in 1860, towers over the town. Dvorak played the pipe organ in this church every day at Mass during his stay in Spillville.

Most mornings, Dvorak, a nature lover, rose before dawn and walked along the Turkey River on the east edge of town where he watched and listened to the birds. As he walked, he jotted down musical notes on his shirt cuffs. He incorporated the song of a scarlet tanager into music he wrote here and also used some of the music he heard at a nearby Indian encampment. While in Spillville, he found the inspiration for "Humoresque," did final work on his "New World Symphony," wrote his "American Quartet" and one quintet.

Before Dvorak's arrival, the town, which had a small orchestra, was already musically inclined. In 1893, using the manuscript score, three of the town's musicians and Dvorak, played the premier performance of the "American Quartet."

Later, the Bily brothers carved a clock in the shape of a violin as a memorial to Dvorak. I wonder what influence the composer had on the brothers, who were young boys during that summer of 1893. Frank and

Joseph Bily grew up and lived their adult lives on a farm near Spillville. Neither of the brothers ever married. In 1913, they developed their hobby of woodcarving to fill the hours of long winter days. In 1916, they completed the Apostle Clock, from which the Twelve Apostles appear on the hour. From 1923 to 1927, they built their masterpiece, the American Pioneer History Clock. In 1928, they carved a memorial clock to Charles Lindbergh.

Their first step in building the clocks was to draw the plans, then Joseph sawed the wood and Frank did the intricate carving. They used foreign wood and local walnut, butternut, maple and oak. An especially interesting clock is the Statuary Clock, which presents an eclectic array of busts of people the brothers wanted to honor: Henry Ford, Richard Wagner, William Shakespeare, Emmanuel Kant, Czech President Masaryk, J.J. Haug (Spillville post master), Henrik Ibsen, Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Spielman.

In 1946, Frank and Joseph moved their entire collection of clocks to the building in which we see them today. As we pass each clock, our guide winds it and sets it on the hour so we can watch the moving displays.

After the museums, we visit St. Wenceslaus Church, built in 1860 because of a conflict between German settlers, most of whom had been here for over a decade, and newly arrived Bohemian immigrants. When the Germans denied the Bohemians permission to worship in their church, the Bohemian settlers decided to build their own. St. Wenceslaus is built of rock, on rock, in true Czech style in this area that strongly resembles the mountain villages of Czechoslovakia.

Unfortunately, the church doors are not open, but we are able to visit the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes. We also walk around the cemetery where we find the graves of Joseph and Frank Bily and Joseph Spielman and his wife. We read other names--Polansky, Krucek, Jirak, Kubaushek, Mikota, Walenta, Bilek--and dates on the old graves.

Before leaving the area, we visit the Dvorak Memorial in Riverside Park along the Turkey River. We hear birds singing. They are of course different birds than Dvorak heard, but perhaps they are singing the same songs.

Nancy Overcott

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