BARBARA CHING - During my professional development assignment in the academic year 2001/2002, I was able to further my research on the cultural significance of country music and to conduct valuable research for my next project, The Test of Time: The Bily Clocks and Provincial Culture. 

Happily, when I applied for the professional development assignment, I was unaware of the publicity that my first book, Wrong’s What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), would receive.  Upon publication of this book, I was invited to speak in several places, including the Live from Prairie Lights radio show (Iowa City, Iowa), The University of Hawaii, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle Washington.  Thanks to the professional development assignment, I had the free time to give these readings and lectures.  During the year, I also wrote an 8000-word essay on country music and the South for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the Literature and Culture of the South (eds. Richard Gray and Owen Robinson) and a 6000-word article on country rock and southern rock for Whiteness, Manhood, and Masculinity in the Recent South  (ed. Trent Watts, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: 2003).  

On September 11, 2001, I arrived at the Bily Clock Museum in Spillville Iowa, to start research on The Test of Time: The Bily Clocks and Provincial Culture; I returned to Memphis as soon as possible and was not able to return to Iowa until May.  In March 2002, however, I made a trip to the National Watch and Clock Museum and Library in Columbia, Pennsylvania, where I made a crucial discovery about the Bily brothers’ most likely source of inspiration.  This museum displayed a massive, highly ornamented clock called “the Engle Clock” that displayed scenes from American History (Figure 1) as does the Bily’s “American Pioneer History” clock.  The Engle clock was exhibited around the United States for about 75 years; according to documents in that library, around 25 such “monumental clocks” were created and exhibited in the last quarter of the 19th century.   I was very pleased to learn that making and viewing such clocks was a forgotten form of cultural expression rather than pure eccentricity on the part of these two sons of Czech immigrants.   

When I returned to the Bily Clock Museum in May 2002, I spent nearly a week looking through the Bily’s library and “archives” (i.e., previously untouched boxes in the museum basement).  I was able to discover much useful material.  For example, they subscribed to a wide range of art magazines, including many that covered New York City gallery openings.  Their angry marginalia to the program of the Winnieshiek County Agricultural Association’s 1945 annual fair express their disappointment that no prizes were awarded to the best artwork on display (while, say, prizes were given to the best pigs and preserves).  “No premium on art” one of the brothers scrawled on the cover–a direct quotation from the pages listing the art displays.  They also saved photographs of other clockmakers’ work (such as the “Tall Corn Clock” by an unknown carver in Lake Mills, Iowa) and newspaper clippings about clock collectors.  In short, this rummaging verified what I had only been able to guess before: the brothers’ ideal was to live as artists participating both in the American art world and in the farm life of their community.  While the museum curators did not attach much significance to the entry sign that the Bily’s carved at the entrance of their collection (figure 2), my research allows me to conclude that their choice of the word art signifies a great deal. 

The reading I did over the course of the year also taught me to see how time--its nature, its measurement, and its representation--was of great public concern in the years the brothers did their carving.  Air travel and automobile ownership changed our experience of velocity, an important component of time (and the subject of two Bily clocks).  The creation of time zones and the institution of daylight-saving time sparked great debate about how the prosperity and technological advances of early-20th century America might be shaping time, an abstraction that had for so long seemed to be a force of God and nature.  In short, while both the events of September 11 and the apparent obscurity of the Bily Brothers have made it difficult for me to be sure that my project had significance, upon research and reflection, I can state that these clocks, like other cultural artifacts, can show us how people make sense from the shocks of change.