In a race against time, he closes in on his goal
At the age of ninety-four, Bob Hills measures time by the number of clocks he’s made. Eighteen more to reach his goal of one-hundred. “Not sure I’ll make it,” he chuckles.
He frets that he has no one to pass on his tools, machines and exceptional knowledge to. None of his five children or eighteen grandchildren and great-grandchildren has shared his interest in making intricate timepieces from sheets of metal. Nor has anyone else.
“Kids today!” Hills grumbles, poking at an imaginary cell phone in his upturned palm. “All they want to do is play games. They don’t want to learn.”
Not so for Hills, whose uncle gave him a copy of The Boy Mechanic when he was thirteen and living with his grandparents in Chicago. “I learned from that and other books,” he says, pulling the thick, bound volume off a shelf of his impressive library. “To Bobby from Edward, 1933,” reads the inscription. “This is my college,” he says, gesturing toward his collection.
With no formal education, Hills became a manufacturing engineer specializing in tool and die-making for such companies as Ford, Chrysler, Studebaker and Grumman. Framed photos and certificates in his West Jacksonville home capture the many awards and accolades he received for his inventions and achievements. Clippings from the Florida Times-Union, Savannah News-Press and other newspapers through the years document his remarkable career. His design for an airplane wing–tip part is still being used. Retired from Grumman’s Gulfstream operations in Savannah since the late 1990s, Hills continues to use his ingenuity to create magnificent clocks from scratch and scraps.
No. 82 – he numbers each clock – sits on a chest-high table in his home workshop. Its exposed innards consist of gears with tiny spokes that mesh precisely to keep perfect time; technology that dates to the 1700s. Not long ago, most of the parts were a large sheet of brass. “Everything in this clock is handmade,” Hills says. “People ask where I buy the parts. What are they thinking? The only things I buy are screws.”
Hills, who has been making clocks for more than half a century, estimated that it takes him about three-hundred hours to complete a grandfather clock, including the machinery, face and wooden case. “Longer than it used to,” he muses. He is creating No. 82 for a woman in North Carolina whose brother owns one of his treasures. He charged her $2,300. “People tell me I’m too cheap,” he admits.
No. 61, a banjo clock named for the shape of its case, is anchored to a shelf he constructed from two-by-fours behind his work table. It is one of the few clocks he still has. He made its pulley, as he did the weights that make it move. “I don’t run to the store to buy pulleys. If I need one, I make it.”
Except for the assembly, most of the clockmaking is done in the large workshop that Hills also built himself, just steps from his back door. It’s crowded with machines, tools, workbenches, wood, gears, patterns and drawers holding various parts, all illuminated by fluorescent lights with dangling pull cords. He’d like to make it bigger. Dishes of food in the doorway are for the cats that keep him company.
“This turning lathe dates to 1922,” he says, pulling a protective cover off the machine, recalling that his uncle bought it in South Bend, Indiana. “I still use it.”
Hills bemoans that it all may be sold for scrap one day.
It’s been a dozen years since he moved into his modest Westside home from the Northside. The U.S. Navy had brought him to Jacksonville originally, and his late wife was from here. A widower for ten years, Hills was raised in Chicago by his grandparents –Swedish immigrants with strong work ethics – after his parents’ deaths. Having no siblings, he is grateful for his large family, most of whom live nearby.
Hills got hooked on big bands and machinery as a young teen in Chicago. He’s been dancing ever since, still regularly showing up at River City Brewing Company in Downtown to dance with the local Carolina Shag Club and at other venues around Jacksonville. “I love that rhythm and swing,” he smiles, conceding that he has slowed down somewhat. With nearly twenty clocks to make to reach his goal, and a workshop to enlarge, Hills is continually looking ahead. “You’ve gotta keep going, that’s all,” he says.
By Lorrie DeFrank ~ Photos by laird