Owego had four early clock makers, one of whom was very well known during his lifetime, and whose clocks are still known for their artistic appeal.
Caleb Leach came to Owego in 1801 because his brother-in-law, Dr. Samuel Tinkham, invited him. Caleb was born in 1755 in Plymouth, Massachusetts and was apprenticed as a watchmaker in Halifax, Massachusetts.
At age 20, however, his life changed due to the American Revolution and he served in several regiments. During the war he was taken ill by small pox and later “bilious” fever (any sickness that included both vomiting and fever), but regained his health both times and later was at Valley Forge. Having served for five continuous years in the army, he was discharged as a sergeant.
After his discharge, he returned home to Halifax and watch making. During this time he married Abigail Tinkham in 1782, and by 1785 he also was making “dwarf” or shelf clocks. His clock making skills were so good that one of his clocks is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But his talent was not limited to clock making.
In the 1790s, Caleb made use of his skills in a very different career: waterworks. In 1796 he invented an “acre auger” for which he received a United States patent in 1797 signed by President John Adams. Built in 1796, the Plymouth Aqueduct Company’s waterworks was operational until 1855.
In 1799, Caleb was asked by Aaron Burr and DeWitt Clinton to build a water works in Manhattan, which were completed in 1806. Other water works he worked on were the Fairmont Works in Philadelphia in 1800-1, and the Jamaica Pond Aqueduct in Boston. He also made an orrery (a mechanical model of our solar system) that was sold by Dr. Forbes, a Brown University lecturer, to Brown University in 1793 for $4,000. It’s not clear how Dr. Forbes obtained it, but it may have been one of the first orreries made in America, and at a cost of $4,000 must have been considered very valuable.
During construction of the Manhattan Water Works, Caleb received a letter in 1801 from his brother-in-law, Dr. Samuel Tinkham, saying that the deed for Caleb’s lot was going to be complete in a few days, and that the wheat crop was doing particularly well.
Caleb had purchased land from Samuel in 1800 for $1,500. But, Caleb may have delayed moving to Owego until 1805 or 1806.
In 1806, he purchased 140 acres of land on the Owego Creek, partly in the Town of Tioga, to which he added more land in 1812. He built grist, saw, and woolen mills in 1809, as well as a distillery. The area became known as Leach’s Mills. He remained living in Owego until about 1832, when he moved to Utica to live with his youngest son. He died in Utica in 1837, and is buried in a Quaker cemetery in New Harford. Abigail is buried in Owego, where she died in 1818.
When Caleb retired from business, he sold it in May of 1832 to Tuttle and Blakeslee. Elida Tuttle, a native of Connecticut, came to Owego in 1831 and purchased a one-third interest in a new clock case firm of Elias Smith and Erastus Blakeslee. It may be that Smith and Blakeslee had purchased the firm directly from Caleb.
The firm of Smith, Tuttle, and Blakeslee was in business until May of 1832 when Smith left the partnership. The new firm of Tuttle and Blakeslee continued to make clock cases fitted with wood movements made in Connecticut by Ephriam Downs of Bristol, Connecticut. Unfortunately, Blakeslee died just a few months later leaving Tuttle to run the company.
Eliada made standard stenciled half-column and splat shelf clocks with columns on the cash, mostly about 34-inches high. Most of the clocks featured mirrors on the lower half of the door, which seems a hallmark of early Owego clocks. Labels in Tuttle clocks were printed at the “Office of the Republican” (newspaper) and read “Improved Clocks, made and sold, Wholesale and Retail, By Eliada Tuttle, At Owego, Tioga Co., N. Y.”
Eliada sold a portion of his Owego property in February of 1834, and four months later Eliada died. Eliada’s death marked the end of the early clock makers of Owego.
Tamara Manker Gates lives in the Village of Owego and is the principal historical researcher for Yesterday’s Gentlemen, a firm specializing in bringing history to life through programs, events and articles. In addition to her work with Yesterday’s Gentlemen, Tamara has done extensive research for local museums on everything from artifacts to genealogy to deed and probate research.