Marc Smith worked on a clock at his Elk River shop, Wednesday, January 4, 2012. Smith said he has worked in the business for more than 30 years. He said he noticed business decline after 9/11. In this digital age in which people substitute cell phones for pocket watches, antique clock repair has become a lost art. There are fewer than a half dozen of these craftsmen listed in the Twin Cities. Marc Davis is one of them.(ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES �

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

He's Elk River's clock doctor

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • January 10, 2012 - 2:29 PM

It is a centuries-old art that has become increasingly dated, but one that time hasn't forgotten.

Doc Davis -- nobody calls him by his given name, Marc -- sits in his Elk River workspace, surrounded by gears, springs, pendulums, hundreds of pieces of hardware and 24 antique clocks. There are clocks on the table, clocks on the wall, clocks sitting on shelves and clocks standing on the floor.

Davis doesn't wear a wristwatch. Doesn't need one.

The man known as the Antique Clock Doc, and one of fewer than a half-dozen antique-clock repair experts listed in the Twin Cities, says he has another 300 clocks at his home in rural Pease in Mille Lacs County -- which means he has more clocks than Pease has people. Most of the clocks don't work when he gets them, but they will in time.

"Of the 300 clocks at home, I have 100 running," he says. "I've silenced the chimes, but I love the ticking."

You wonder what makes this 60-year-old, who grew up in West St. Paul, tick. And then you hear the story of the French clock that he says, somewhat conservatively, was at least 200 years old when he bought it on eBay for $200 and paid another $200 to have it shipped to Minnesota.

The clock was rescued from a collapsed building in France. It probably had sat outside for 150 years, he says. It was rained on, snowed on, defecated on by birds. The clock was coated in rust when he received it, and Davis let it sit in a vat of WD-40 for three months.

Then he spent 130 hours working on it. Now, it ticks away.

Up close and personal

"A woman in Crystal was selling a clock that she said had been in her family for 280 years," Davis tells a visitor. "It was an English grandfather clock, built around 1720. The second I got close enough, I hugged it.

"The woman said to me, 'I want you to have it.' I told her I couldn't afford it. And she said, 'But you hugged my clock.'

"I told her that I checked with Sotheby's and a clock like that could be worth up to $40,000. She said she didn't care about money. She'd sell it to me for $1,500, but she wanted me to have it. She told me again, 'You hugged my clock!'"

Who hugs clocks? Probably the same person who can tell you that a pendulum swings 31.5 million times a year.

"When a pendulum works that hard, it needs a tiny drop of oil every so often," he says. "Clocks are like car engines -- other than your heart, the only things you have that beat constantly. But you wouldn't let an engine go without oil.

"Nobody oils their clocks. That's why I'm in business."

Keeping pace

He's been in business for 30 years -- long enough that he's finally reached the age of most of his customers, which, he says, is "55 plus." The few younger customers who come in with old clocks needing repair often ask "where the battery goes."

"They don't understand," he says.

But Davis understood the marvel at an early age. And time has stood still for him ever since.

His dad was a laborer, his mother a homemaker. Neither discouraged him when, as a child, he took apart anything and everything he could find.

"I had to know how things worked," he says.

And he loved the ticking.

Ticking the night away

Davis worked as a wholesaler for a chain-link fence company. Then he sold floor covering. And all the while, he was buying and fixing clocks, a hobby-turned-business that kept him busy till 2 or 3 a.m.

"I've been living on three or four hours sleep a night since I was 10," he says. "Sleeping's a waste of time.

"The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was a rechargeable flashlight. I'd read under the covers well into the night."

His marriage did not survive his nonstop schedule, he says. His clock-repair business almost ran out of time as well.

Davis says he was working out of an 1870s farmhouse on Hwy. 101, south of Elk River, when a Minnesota Department of Transportation engineer dropped by years ago. The MnDOT worker held up a blueprint that showed a highway ramp that was to run through the old farmhouse.

"I was given a choice by MnDOT," Davis says. "I could take $20,000 and disappear or take $50,000 and relocate. They kept me in business. I can't thank them enough."

Located on a frontage road off Hwy. 10, a few blocks east of Elk River's Main Street, Antique Clock Doc Repair & Sales has done a healthy business. Davis makes his own parts, guarantees his work and has earned a reputation for sales and repairs. Grandfather clocks are his specialty. And he'll buy antique clocks, working or not.

"If I never heard Westminster chimes again, that would be fine with me," he says. "But the ticking -- I could listen to that all day."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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