The life and work of Daniel Burnap, one of the town’s most eminent craftsmen, will be the subject of the Feb. 8 program of the South Windsor Historical Society. The guest speaker will be Carolyn Stearns of Storrs, a combination storyteller, public speaker, farmer, 4-H leader, community activist, and letterboxer. Her storytelling takes experiences from all avenues and blends them with a language full of color and mood. She was awarded the 2014 Barbara L. Reed Award for Service to CT Storytelling and the National Storytelling network 2014 Oracle Award for Service and Leadership in the Northeast.
Burnap was born in Coventry in 1759. As a teenager, he apprenticed in Norwich with Thomas Harland, an English born and trained clockmaker who was considered the most prolific maker in 18th century Connecticut and mentor of several top craftsman of the era. In 1786, Burnap moved to East Windsor Hill, the northwest corner of what is now South Windsor. He purchased the home from Smith Bailey, who had repaired watches and made silver spoons at the nearby post office building.
Local historian Doris Burgdorf, in “A Country Mile,” notes, “He made andirons, brass kettles, tools for making pills, silver spoons, and guards for pistol locks.” Most craftsmen relied on mundane chores like those for extra income and frequently assigned them to apprentices.
Burnap’s clocks were soon sought by wealthy merchants and farmers throughout the Connecticut River Valley. A good tall clock sold for ten to twenty pounds, more than the annual wages of a blacksmith or farmer.
In addition to a central location and a rich clientele, East Windsor Hill provided Burnap a ready supply of cases for his clockworks. He partnered with noted cabinet makers Eliphalet Chapin and Simeon Loomis, who lived down the street, sometimes buying their cases outright, but more often exchanging clockworks or brass fixtures for them.
Penrose Hoopes, an antique clock expert, said Burnap was the most successful clockmaker in Connecticut between 1785 and 1805 and enjoyed a reputation second only to his mentor Harland for the quality of his workmanship. His artistically engraved brass and silver dials and faces were particularly prized, carrying his name and town as well as lunar and abstract designs. His brass clockworks ran for eight days and some had elaborate chiming patterns and calendar attachments.
One of Burnap’s first and brightest apprentices was Eli Terry, who started out with the older and less expensive clocks with wooden works. Some of the simpler parts were interchangeable, a fact that Terry capitalized upon soon after his training. The youth applied the use of interchangeable wooden parts to mass produce clocks at a much lower cost.
At the start of the 19th century, Burnap moved back to his family farm in Coventry, became a farmer, sawmill operator, distiller, and public official.
He may also have kept up some of his clock-making and other enterprises in South Windsor until his death in 1838.
The program, part of the “History Made Alive” series, will be held at Wood Library & Museum, 783 Main St., South Windsor, at 7 p.m. The library will also have items made by Burnap on display. The recommended donation for adults is $5 ($3 for members of the Historical Society and Wood Library).
Refreshments will be served.