Sweeney's House of Clocks (Gone)
No matter how many clocks Ray Tlougan and Ray Sweeney collected, they were still going to die. Just a matter of time. Now they've passed on, and the northeast corner of Iowa is left with this odd museum and a graphic lesson in mortality.
Just a bit north of a fiberglass Muffler Man Cowboy and Steer, surrounded by corn fields, sits the House of Clocks. If it wasn't in a large, unheated farm building in Northeast Iowa, far from any interstate, it could rival Times Square as a New Year's Eve hangout.
The House of Clocks belonged to Ray Sweeney, former auctioneer and banker. Ray would give tours when he was alive, but he died in 1994. Today you have to ask at the Village Farm and Home store (owned by the Sweeney family) down the road to gain admission.
Grandson Steve drives us up the hill to unlock the building. He dutifully winds all the clocks -- maybe a thousand of them, he's not sure -- each week. The place is musty, and save for the relentless ticking, quiet. With Ray gone, the Sweeney family no longer promotes the attraction, so the volume of visitor traffic is down considerably.
How did all these clocks end up here? It takes some explaining. A different Ray -- Ray Tlougan -- began the collection. Tlougan set up his clocks in Spillville, a town a half hour west of Waukon, which already had another clock collection, the better-promoted Spillville Bily Clocks. Bachelor farmer brothers Frank and Joseph Bily carved elaborate wooden clocks in Spillville for 50 years. The last brother died in the 1960s, but white-haired temporal enthusiasts still pour into the old brickfront residence on weekends to enjoy their craftsmanship.
In the best tradition of parasitic tourist attractions, Ray Tlougan set up his House of Clocks -- a mass of store-bought and antique tickers -- right across the street from the Bily Clocks. One could spend an entire clock-filled afternoon in Spillville.
Ray Tlougan died in 1985 in Decorah, and that's when Ray Sweeney bought the collection and moved it to Waukon. Keeping the House of Clocks "brand," he combined it with his own considerable mass of historical items, knickknacks, and castoffs from around Allamakee County. A train, a building full of dusty cars, Ray's boyhood schoolhouse, a pioneer log cabin, and a tiny church all now share space on the hilltop with the House of Clocks.
Back in the present, young Steve points out what highlights he can, such as a particularly valuable grandfather clock. But Steve is barely in his teens and only knows a few of the stories behind the items. Neither Ray left behind a guidebook.
As usual, we're most amused by the incongruities. Two mannequins in World War I army uniforms guard two seated Indians. A tiny wooden church that lights up is a replica of the "World's Smallest Church" in nearby Festina. An old jukebox triggers a tiny animatronic band that mechanically clatters and shudders to the music. Steve picks out a few favorite polkas. Our eyes pop out on long, appreciative stems....