parents brought him to Winneshiek Co. when he was 14. As he approached manhood John found employment on the railroad. Shortly after marriage, when he had saved up enough money to buy land, he turned to farming.
Joseph and Frank had one sister Anna who died in 1943. Another brother, named John like his father, was stricken with paralysis in his childhood and preceded his parents in death. His father died in 1941 and his mother died in 1949.
By occupation the Bily Brothers were farmers and carpenters. Carving was their hobby which they indulged in when their chores were done. Their father was opposed to their pastime and frequently chided them for wasting their time but they persisted.
The brothers divided their work. Joseph did the designing, drawing of the plans and joining of the woods and his younger brother Frank did nearly all of the carving. They also made all of their own installations and repairs. Although their inspiration for carving was a natural talent from their very early childhood, the idea of carving clocks was derived from their Norwegian neighbor who carved a clock but was unable to properly equip it with mechanism. He asked the brothers to install the works in his creation. This gave them the idea of carving their own clocks, and in 1913 they began the unique hobby which would occupy their spare time for the balance of their lives.
The tools they used were very simple-many of them being home-made. Nearly all of the main clocks have movable figures and musical chimes. This mechanism is of the Brothers’ own construction. The clock works and chimes are factory made except for one hall clock which has carved wooden works - the sheels, shafts, dial hands and figures are made of wood with the exception of the cogs on the escapement which are metal points set into wooden wheel. Most of their work was done in native wood, such as black walnut, butternut, hard maple and oak. However such other woods as the European cherry, mahogany, boxwood, white holly and ebony, used mostly in their earlier clocks, were imported.
It was the Brothers’ idea of combining their artistic work with music and movable mechanical figures such as the apostles, bands, cuckoos, and many others which makes the clock display so interesting to both young and old, and which attracts visitors from all parts of the country.
Although they had received various offers for their clocks, they never accepted any of them, even to turning down a potentially lucrative proposal to display a representative portion of them at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1947 they made arrangements whereby the entire clock collection became the property of the town of Spillville after their death-never to be broken up in any way. They stipulated that it was to always remain in its present location-the building formerly occupied by Composer Anton Dvorak during his visit to Spillville in 1893. Joseph died in 1964 and Frank in 1965. They are both buried in the St. Wenceslaus Church Cemetery in Spillville, IA.
According to family records and my memory the following Birdsell family history exists—
On 6 Nov 1799 my great-great-grandfather William Birdsell was born in Nova Scotia. He and his wife, the former Mary Groff, had 9 sons. One of those sons was my great-grandfather Israel L. Birdsell who was born 26 Sept 1852 in the United States (probably in Iowa). By that time the Birdsells had arrived in Frankville Twp., Winneshiek Co., IA where they purchased farm land west of the present location of the village of Frankville from the government for $1.25 per acre.
Israel Birdsell married Flora Kenyon; they begat 2 children, Eugene “Gene” Rutherford (b. 25 Nov 1876) (Rutherford B. Hayes was soon to become president of the United States in a much debated election process) and James G.
Gene married Margaret “Maggie” Louise Brandt (b. 18 Dec 1878) on 18 Sep 1898. Their 2 children were my father, Leo Lester (b. 22 May 1899) and Ralph Richard (b. 27 Nov 1901). Gene and Maggie farmed west of Frankville and reared their 2 sons.
For a few years around 1920 Dr. E. A. Nash, his wife Laura and their family lived in Frankville where he was a practicing country doctor. Dr. Nash had earned enough money working summers on farms near Wykoff, MN to finance his medical school expenses (How times have changed!). It was there that he met Laura Means whom he married. Ruby (b. 5 Jan 1901) was one of their daughters. Leo and Ruby met and fell in love while the Nashes lived in Frankville. The Nash family moved to Peterson, IA where Ruby graduated from Algona High School and attended Upper Iowa University for one year. She then taught school in Gilman, IA. The Leo/Ruby courtship continued and resulted in marriage and me. Leo married Ruby Irene Nash, my mother, 12 Sep 1924.
They had one child, Donald “Don “ Francis, . Leo and Ruby lived in a rented house near the Gene and Maggie farm for one year after their marriage. Gene and Maggie decided to retire and build a new home in Ossian. For some reason they did not choose to move into the new home and built another new home in Frankville. They moved to this home and started a custom feed grinding business which they kept for a number of years. My grandmother would often accompany my grandfather as they took their portable mill to various farms and both of them worked together to get the job done. Some may remember their black bulldog, Dempsey (named after the fighter Jack Dempsey) who would ride with them and was often the terror of the area, including our farm. That memorable dog killed my pet rabbits!
Leo and Ruby then moved to the farm vacated by Gene and Maggie and with Ralph, who never married, farmed that property for many years. Leo was very community minded and was a leader in organizations such as the Farm Bureau and the Rural Electrification Administration. I remember the first year that he practiced contour farming (we called it strip-farming)-many thought he was “out-
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this page was last updated on Sunday, 28 March 2021