Woodrow Pierce, Sr. would be thrilled to know that one of his old Western Union railroad depot clocks that he saved from the garbage heap in the 1960s is now proudly hanging in the DeSoto County Museum.
Pierce, a long-time resident of Hernando Oak Grove Community, worked for Western Union for 45 years and used to install and repair the clocks.
At one time, every train depot, fire house, police station, and schoolhouse relied on these clocks to give them the exact time. But by the 1960s, it was no longer profitable to provide the service to battery operated clock technology, and the Western Union Telegraph Company ordered the clocks removed and destroyed.
Pierce was able to save about a dozen of the clocks and kept them stored away in his attic.
His son, Woodrow Pierce, Jr., is now carrying out his father’s dream of once again seeing the historic timepieces hanging in museums and train depots. He donated one to the DeSoto County Museum this week where it now proudly hangs in the entrance foyer for visitors from around the world to see upon entering the museum.
“He would love it,” Pierce said. “He died in the early 1980s and I knew they were there. I had one in my house, a big wall hung clock like this. He showed me how to repair them and put in the batteries to keep them running. But in the back of my mind, I knew he saved all these clocks and didn’t want that history to be lost. So I thought one day I would do something with them.”
Pierce’s family has long-time community ties to DeSoto County. His mother, Josephine Brinkley Pierce, was born in Hernando on May 15, 1920, and lived in Love Station, south of Hernando. She met and married Woodrow in Memphis in 1943.
Woodrow, Sr., began his employment with Western Union in 1931 at age 15, delivering telegrams as a messenger boy on his bicycle. He advanced steadily through the company, progressing to Morse Code operator, then later worked maintaining telegraph lines along the railroad’s vast system. He also worked as a technician in the engineering department installing and repairing clocks, tickertape, teletype, and telegraph machines.
Pierce said the clocks have a very unique history. Before the 1880s, time was established in all local communities by the sun being directly overhead at noon. The system worked until railroads made it possible to travel long distances in a shorter amount of time.
The heads of the major railroads met in 1883 to adopt a standard time system. Having exact times was essential for railroad safety. The country was then divided into time zones one hour apart.
Pierce said in 1877 Western Union demonstrated that they could send a signal through the telegraph lines to transmit the exact time.
“A master clock at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. would send an electronic pulse down the line every hour, 24 hours a day,” Pierce said. “And every clock, whether it was in Memphis or Tucumcari, New Mexico, would correct themselves. The minute hands would pop and snap to 12. So all the clocks at the train depots stayed accurate to the minute, and now trains could run on schedules.”
Pierce said Western Union maintained the clocks for a monthly subscription fee. The clock mechanisms also ran on electric dry cell batteries which would rewind the clock every hour and last a year before needing to be replaced.
“Western Union not only provided the clock, but they serviced them for a monthly fee and would come out once a year and replace the battery,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the need for “exact time” service was also used by banks, factories, schools, churches, businesses, and even sporting events. He said hundreds of thousands of these clocks were manufactured. The patent date stamped on the mechanism on the clock in the museum dates to October 4, 1898.
Pierce said by the 1960s, the time-service business had run its course and the service - along with the clocks - were no longer needed.
“Nobody needed a battery operated clock,” Pierce said. “When they took them out of the train stations, Western Union, which had thousands of these clocks, just threw them away. That’s how my dad managed to save about a dozen.”
Woodrow Pierce, Sr., retired from Western Union as Memphis City Manager in 1976 and moved to Hernando.
“He raised Herefords on Rising Sun Road in the Oak Grove community,” Pierce said. “His house was the farm across the street from Oak Grove Baptist Church. Of course, there are houses there now.”
Museum Curator Robert Long said they are thrilled to have the clock. Today, the clocks are museum pieces and are sought after by clock collectors.
“It is a beautiful timepiece,” Long said. “It’s a perfect fit for our museum because railroads put DeSoto County on the map. We really appreciate Woody taking the time to hang the clock for us. And without people like Woody, we wouldn’t have this piece of history.”
In addition to the DeSoto County Museum, Pierce has donated clocks to the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum, Morton Museum of Collierville History, and plans to offer one to the H.K. Burrow Museum in Arlington, and the Germantown Train Depot Museum in Germantown.
Pierce said he has four clocks left.
“I’ve found some good homes for them,” Pierce said. “Now, these train depots are coveted in communities as historical spots. So I want to finish the deal. He knew in his heart that they would be of interest to someone.”