For more than a century, an impressive piece of family history stood tall and proud, marking time until it found its ultimate resting place at Nelson Jewelry in Spencer, Iowa. A stroke of luck and perfectly timed dinner brought the majestic grandfather clock back to where it belonged.
A fifth-generation jeweler, Tom Nelson owns the family store in Spencer’s historic downtown. Tom’s great-great-grandfather, N.P. Nelson, started the original Nelson Jewelry in nearby Forest City, a little significant family history that just recently came to light. Tom’s great-grandfather, Nels, also was a jeweler in Forest City, opening his own store in 1881.
“My great-grandfather had four boys,” Tom says. “When my grandfather, Ralph, came of age to start working, to make it a career after his schooling, two of his brothers were already working in the Forest City store. So he said that’s too many people, no room for me. He moved to Spencer, bought an existing store (Howe Brothers) and changed the name to Nelson Jewelry in 1928. Ralph’s son R. Thomas later worked in the store, and in 2012, his son Tom became owner.
Two years after taking ownership, Tom was gifted with the tale of the timepiece.
“When the clock was in the store over in Forest City, it survived a huge fire that took down four buildings,” Tom says. “We have a picture of it sitting out in the middle of a snowy street, where they’d moved it out of the building to save it.” The year was 1915.
“That store in Forest City was run by my grandfather’s two brothers, Leo and Paul,” Tom says. “Leo died, and Paul ran the store into the late 1960s. My dad’s Uncle Paul was friends with Jack (John K.) Hanson, who founded Winnebago motorhomes in Forest City. Then there was an auctioneer from a small town near Forest City called Buffalo Center, and the three were card-playing buddies.
“When Paul closed the store (in the 1970s), he had an auction to get rid of stuff and the clock was part of that. The story is there was a bidding war between Jack Hanson and the auctioneer, whose name was Roy Johnson. Roy ended up with the clock. It was in his office in Buffalo Center for many years. When he passed away, the clock ended up in a bank in Buffalo Center.
“They had it a few years, and Roy’s widow moved to Arizona. The bank called and said they didn’t want the clock anymore. So Roy’s son, also Roy, was put in charge of getting rid of it. The clock had antique value, so he consigned it with Jackson Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa.” It was believed the clock would most likely sell to someone in England or Europe, or perhaps a high-end collector on either coast.
This is where the perfect timing comes in, a chance conversation at a chance dinner between Tom’s wife and Roy’s mother.
“My wife, Kate, got her master’s degree in nursing six years ago,” Tom explains. “She became friends with someone who was also getting her master’s.
“About a year after they finished school, they decided to go to a continuing education seminar in Phoenix. While they were down there, my wife’s friend, whose name is Joan, invited Kate to her aunt’s house for dinner. Joan introduced Kate, mentioning that her husband is a jeweler. The aunt said, ‘Oh, we had a Nelson Jewelry in Forest City,’ and Kate said, ‘Yes, those were my husband’s relatives.’ So she said, ‘We have a clock that belonged to the jewelry store, and we’re selling it.’
“What are the chances of that happening?” Tom marvels.
“My wife comes back from Phoenix and tells me the story, and says, ‘You’ve got to call about this clock.’ I was thinking it was a mantel clock or whatever, and kind of blew it off until about a month later.”
Tom contacted Roy Johnson, Jr., the auctioneer’s son - and whose mother was Joan’s aunt. He told Tom all about the clock. In a letter to family members at the time, Tom wrote that his “intention is to try and secure this piece for the store. I have no idea how much it may sell for but I would hate for this to go away - just way too much history. Not sure if I can do it but gotta try . . . whole story is just so crazy.”
Tom participated in the auction in November 2014 by phone. “I ended up buying the clock and moving it back into the store here in Spencer,” he says. “The only way I would have ever found out about it is my wife going to dinner at her friend’s aunt’s house.”
Fast-forward to present, the clock sits prominently in the store at Nelson Jewelry - “keeping perfect time,” Tom notes. Dating back to 1885, the burled walnut masterpiece stands 10 feet tall and features a unique deer head carving at the top. Tom says his watchmaker/clockmaker has identified the works or movement of the clock to be a New Haven Regulator #10.
Nelson Jewelry, with three full-time and two part-time employees, is a full-service store, carrying an impressive array of bridal and fashion lines, crystal and porcelain gifts, and clocks – clocks of every variety including floor clocks, wall clocks and mantel clocks. But that one certain time-ticker has become a conversation piece, and it’s firmly entrenched at Nelson Jewelry.
Tom laughs at the notion the family heirloom might have a price tag. “The clock is never going anywhere,” he says. “My family would kill me. It has a special place here. It sits prominently in our store, right where everybody can see it.”