FRANKFORT — He got the idea on a visit to Niagara Falls. He saw it as a tourist draw and an opportunity to stop and reflect on the beauty of nature in the midst of acrimonious political debate. He was ridiculed for building it.
But the ridicule didn’t stop Gov. Bert T. Combs from constructing a floral clock on the state capitol grounds 50 years ago, and Wednesday about 250 — many members of garden clubs across Kentucky, some of which helped raise funds for construction of the clock — gathered to mark the anniversary.
“He loved these (capitol) grounds as if they were his own back yard,” said Lois Combs Weinberg, daughter of Gov. Combs. Weinberg told of her father’s seeing a floral clock on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and his determination to construct one on the capitol grounds. At first he secured the mechanical works from a watch company and planned to use prison labor to do the work. But the watch company learned it couldn’t donate the parts because of a federal regulation and unions objected to using prison labor.
“Well, I’d already announced I would build it,” she quoted her father as saying. So he kept at it with the help of the Garden Club of Kentucky, which raised money for its construction.
Fontaine Banks, who served as Combs’ chief of staff and now is an advisor to Gov. Steve Beshear, vigorously opposed building the clock, knowing it would be subject of political ridicule. He was there Wednesday, noting he was the “first Kentuckian to oppose the floral clock,” but telling the audience he now often sits beneath the clock outside his Capitol Annex office, waiting for his ride and visiting with those who come to see the clock.
During those interludes, Banks said, he’s met people from 19 different countries and nearly every state who’ve come to see the 34-foot diameter clock planted with flowers and have their photographs taken in front of it.
Banks said he knew the clock would be used by political opponents, most notably Happy Chandler, and he tried to dissuade Combs from building it.
“I even hid the plans for the clock,” Banks told the audience. “But (Combs) knew where to find them.” Combs, he said, stood at his office window one day and suddenly exclaimed: “I’m going to build my damn clock.”
And he did.
It didn’t take Chandler long to hit Combs with the clock.
“Well, they don’t say it’s half past 10 in Frankfort anymore,” Chandler is reported to have said. “It’s two petunias past the Jimson weed.”
Banks said if anyone had predicted to him in 1961 that he’d celebrate the clock’s construction half a century later, “I’d have said they needed to have their heads examined.” But there he was, along with first lady Jane Beshear, former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, Combs’ son and daughter, and Combs’ widow as well as family members of the architect who designed the clock.
The first lady unveiled a plaque to honor William C. Livingston, who designed the clock, and the Garden Club of Kentucky, which raised money to build it. She led those in attendance to the other end of the Capitol Annex grounds to rededicate the rose garden Gov. Combs installed to go with his beloved clock.
She said she often observes Banks seated at the base of the clock waiting for his ride and knowing his initial opposition to the clock, she imagines him saying to himself: “Governor, you were right. You were right. You were right.”
The clock is 34 feet in diameter and is tilted at a 26-degree angle. The minute hand is 20-feet long, and the hour hand is 15-feet long; each weighs approximately 500 pounds. The hands have been painted gold to commemorate the 50th anniversary. A fountain surrounds the base of the clock and coins tossed in the fountain by visitors are used to fund a scholarship offered by the Garden Club of Kentucky for students studying horticulture or agriculture-related subjects.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.