Turn Back the Clock
The phone call came out of the blue from a man named Steve, great- nephew of the School’s founder. His family had an antique clock that once belonged to Thomas Sidwell. It hadn’t run in a long time, but it had been well cared for over the years. Were we interested?
Thomas Sidwell and Frances Haldeman-Sidwell never had children of their own, but over their 47-year marriage, various young people lived with them. Malcolm Clephane, the School’s first student to go on to college, lived with the Sidwells while studying and working on the family farms. The Sidwells boarded children of senators and congressmen when they were on recess. For eight years, Thomas Sidwell’s niece Frances Sidwell Benson ’15 lived with them while she was a student. Another young person who lived with Thomas was his sister Alice’s daughter, Josie Meyers.
Josie lived with the Sidwells in the 1890s when she was in her early 20s before marrying Frank Russell. She assisted with the younger students while continuing her own studies. By the time she left in 1895, she was teaching history and geography. From diaries and letters, we know that Josie made the most of her time in the city, spending evenings on the social circuit and attending plays and lectures, including one on women’s suffrage given by Susan B. Anthony. In Thomas Sidwell’s later years, Josie and her sister Sarah (“Sadie”) moved to the Eye Street campus and helped their Uncle Tom after Frances’s passing.
In Thomas Sidwell’s will, he left most of his estate to the newly incorporated Sidwell Friends School, instructing the board of trustees to try to keep the school running for three years, after which time they could continue it or liquidate it. He left some
farmland to his brother and his nieces, Sadie (who was also one of the School’s founding trustees) and Josie.
According to family lore, upon his death, Sidwell also bequeathed a tall clock to his beloved niece, Josie. She gave the clock to her son, Laurence Myers Russell, who
in turn passed it on to his son, Laurence Myers Russell Jr. It remained in Laurence Jr.’s home until his death in May 2021. Laurence expressed to his brother, Stephen Russell, that he would like the clock to be gifted to Sidwell Friends School upon his passing.
The family had the clock delivered to the Wisconsin Avenue campus in November. The School asked a Quaker antique clock restorer to take a look at it, and learned that the clock dates to 1795–1805. The clockmaker was John Welker of Frederick, Maryland, who trained under Frederick Heisely of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. With great care, the clockworks were disassembled and cleaned, and a broken hour hand that had once been creatively repaired with part of a minute hand was replaced with a proper hour hand from the correct period.
Thomas Sidwell’s clock now resides in its new home in the Bernstein Drawing Room in Zartman House. Once a week, we retrieve the crank and wind the iron clock weights back up to the top of the carved walnut case. And once an hour, anyone within earshot knows exactly what time it is without having to pull out their phone or glance at a computer screen. They know the same way that Thomas, Frances, Josie, and generations of Sidwells have known—by listening to the chimes from that old grandfather clock.
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