The hands of time

Turning back the hands of time is something nearly everyone has wished they could do at one moment or another. Perhaps it is to relive, change, or simply visit something in the past. Not to mention the fact that today’s digital clocks don’t even have hands, nonetheless it is still not possible to do. Time marches on and todays become yesterdays.

However, one way to learn about the past or even experience it vicariously is by visiting historic sites. Even though choices are countless, one destination in our own backyard is the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. It is part of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail and on the National Register of Historic Places. Several prior columns have highlighted the museum but they have only scratched the surface because there is so much to see and learn there, including old time wind-up clocks with hands.

Lighthouse keepers and families lived at the lighthouse since 1826. One was the Peter Dempsey family who lived on the premises from 1885 to 1902. When Peter’s son Frank was born in 1887, he went into Dunkirk and purchased an 8-Day clock as a gift to his wife Elizabeth. Today it sits on the mantel in the museum’s living room. Manufactured by William Gilbert & Company of Connecticut, it sat there over 120 years ago, guiding the comings and goings of the family and maybe even was used to remind Peter to wind the lighthouse lens clock mechanism every four hours to keep the light burning.

Today we simply slip in a battery for most of our “time pieces” or easier yet, keep track of time via towers and satellites with our cellular phones. Although not as ancient as sundials, it was certainly not that long ago when we needed to wind our wrist watches and our clocks. An 8-day clock was wound every week with a crank key to activate the gears, levers, and springs. Beautiful and available as antiques, it is unfortunate that repairing such clocks is a lost art with few people able to do so.

A mantel isn’t complete without some kind of art. The museum has many pieces, but is proud to have recently acquired an original painting that once hung over the mantel many years ago. It was painted by local artist Sam Schrier of Point Drive North for Francis Arnold, the lighthouse keeper from 1909 to 1950. Originally painted in the 1930s, it was donated at the end of last year by Jim McCarthy, grandson of Mr. Arnold. Called “Rounding Point Gratiot,” the lighthouse is visible in the background on land that was given by Walter Smith, one of Dunkirk’s founders and named after General Charles Gratiot, a West Point engineer. Seeing the lighthouse from the water is a welcome sight. Looking out from the tower over the water is a beautiful sight, no matter what the weather.

The hours of the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Remember to mark your calendars for Aug. 17 and 18. The museum is hosting the “Battle of Lighthouse Point.” Highlights include a Civil War camp with drill, safety inspections, weapon demonstrations (battle scenarios), a court martial, a period church service and social, and fife and drum music both days. There will also be a concert by the 20th Maine/Calvert Arms Fife and Drum Corps Saturday evening followed by a candle light tour.

Refreshments will be available throughout the weekend. Tickets are for a nominal fee to support both the Lighthouse Museum and Dunkirk Historical Society. Call 366-5050 or visit for more information about the upcoming weekend, daily tours, and monthly ghost tours.

Next week’s column will feature the infantry units that have volunteered to come to Dunkirk for this great event.

Make it a good week as the hands of time mark the end of July.

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