So far on our travels, we’ve met a number of interesting people but some of the most interesting we’ve met are ghosts from another era. Characters who never captured notoriety, adoration or wealth during their brief time on the planet but leave a visual legacy of their passions as inspiration for us.
Two of these characters are the Bily Brothers (pronounced Bee-Lee), Frank and Joseph. On the surface, these two life-long bachelors from ordinary Czech stock appear to be prototypical early twentieth century farmers; doing the hard work necessary to support themselves, their older disabled brother and their younger sister. They enjoyed some social time at the tavern on occasion, but mostly kept to themselves.
But, in their early thirties, after a life-long love affair with wood carving, these amateur artists took their hobby to a remarkable new level.
Joseph’s self-taught engineering prowess and Frank’s practice-honed carving skills (the brothers had only a fifth grade education) combined to create the most intricate, beautiful and timeless wood-carved clocks ever designed by untrained hands in the United States.
The Bily Clock Museum in Spillville, Iowa, owns all the known timepieces and other carvings ever produced by these brothers as stipulated in their will. The collection is impossible to valuate, as no collector has ever purchased a Bily Clock. In fact, one of their most famous offers came in 1928. Upon seeing what is widely considered the brothers’ masterpiece, The American Pioneer History Clock, industrialist Henry Ford formally offered them $1 million for it. They refused.
Here’s a sampling of their work:
American Pioneer History Clock
We begin with their masterpiece. The clock took four years to construct, and stands over eight feet tall. Made of European cherry and walnut, the 57 panels represent key events in American history. Over time, as ideas came to them, the brothers would add additional details to the clock, including important captions embellishing the depictions.
An Army and Navy man guard the liberty bell, and on each side of the soldiers, the brothers placed a penny, one dated 1850, the other 1935. While the clocks play “America.” the Four Ages of Life parade forward from a concealed compartment behind the panel ornamented with the Mayflower.
The Paradise Clock
Inspired by Genesis, this clock was completed in 1934 and carved from butternut, oak and ash. It features the Garden of Eden and all its inhabitants including Adam, Eve, the serpent and the angel. The base shows the creation of the universe.
The moon phases are shown on the hand printed semi-circle plaque in the clocks face. It’s detail is truly breathtaking and though it wasn’t demonstrated during our visit, the feathered canary moves and sings when activated.
The Lookout Clock
The Bily brothers had a great deal of respect for Native Americans and The Lookout Clock was carved as a tribute to their ways. The chief, his wife and son ar on the lookout for white settlers (who are depicted on the panel beneath them).
The detail is tremendous featuring many symbols of Indian culture including a deer, bear, eagle and squirrel, as well as a totem pole and the bottom panel shows a carving of an old Aztec village.