Elgin watch found in 1950s awaits rightful owner

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — The hands came to rest shortly before midnight, or noon, sometime in the 1950s.

But for the past two months, the tiny Elgin watch has sat rolled up quietly in bubble wrap, in an envelope, on this newspaper reporter’s desk in a 60-some-odd-year-long wait to find its rightful owner.

Lea Little of Russellville mailed the inch-long time piece to the Times Record office in late January with a story recounting how her father, Herman Neihouse, found it “years and years ago in Fort Smith,” most likely in the 1950s, the Southwest Times Record (http://bit.ly/2mZ9agJ ) reported. Herman and Agatha Neihouse ran a service station on Midland Boulevard, so it could have belonged to any number of visitors passing through.

In a last-ditch effort to help find its rightful owner, or a survivor, Little brings us to the attention of the watch’s only lasting clue: The initials “MYP” engraved on the back.

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“Someone must have treasured it,” Little writes in a neatly typed letter.

She recalls her father showing her the watch in the late 1950s and thinks she was still living in Fort Smith when her father found it. She is uncertain where he found it, but it was kept among a group of other watches until he passed away Feb. 16, 1996. That’s about when she took possession of it.

Although Little wasn’t sure when it was made, thanks to Newton’s Jewelers in downtown Fort Smith, we have a better idea of that.

Delicately prying off the watch’s back and inspecting its hidden etchings under a jeweler’s loupe, gemologist Gary Curtis at Newton’s notices the last service date on the watch marked as Aug. 19, 1950. Upon further inspection with a higher powered microscope, Curtis finds the serial number: 35880599. He plugs the digits into Elgin’s website, which indicates the production year was 1936 and there were 78,000 of the watches made. The production dates, the website adds, were 1933 to 1935.

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How it was produced in 1936 when production dates ended in 1935 adds to the mystery of this little watch.

Kelly Newton at Newton’s Jewelers said his watch aficionados are actually more comfortable with dating the watch to the early 1940s. Mr. Newton has several watches like it at the store in a collection, he said, and in his experience the serial number “may or may not lead one to the correct information.”

One thing is more certain than before. The brand is pronounced with a soft “g,” like “el jen,” Curtis said.

And according to the Elgin website, the brand has become “woven into the fabric of America” with a mention in Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Walking Blues,” when he sings “She’s got Elgin movements from her head down to her toes.” And Daniel Beard’s sketches of an angel at the end of Mark Twain’s 1889 book “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” are said to be based on the watch company’s logo.

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A few comparable Lady Elgin watches pop up in online searches of 1930s print advertisements. They were all in the $40 range. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $40 in 1936 had the same amount of buying power as about $700 in today’s economy. If we adjust the year to the early 1940s (1941-1943) that $40 would buy $560 and $600 worth of watches today.

Curtis said the Elgin watch could be fixed for $50 and $100. And judging by eBay sales of comparable watches, it would probably be worth about the same amount as it costs to fix it.

Mr. Niehouse, born in 1906 at Shiloh Creek near Subiaco, went on to operate the D-X Service Station on Midland Boulevard in Fort Smith for many years with his wife. Little said he always had a fascination for timepieces, and fixing clocks was among his many talents. Restoring houses was another.

“During WWII, there were certain items that were difficult to buy, clocks among them,” Little writes in an email. “As a child, I recall people coming to the house and bringing their manual windup clock to be fixed … He had a box of all kinds of parts, springs, gears, etc. to fix clocks.”

During World War II, the Elgin National Watch Co. also had halted all civilian manufacturing and began manufacturing military watches, chronometers, fuses for artillery shells, altimeters and other aircraft instruments and sapphire bearings used for aiming cannons.

“While their altruism was vital to the war effort, Elgin’s patriotism ironically opened an opportunity for the Swiss,” the Elgin website states. By 1964, the original Elgin factory in Illinois closed. Over the course of a century, the factory just north of Chicago had produced half of all jeweled pocket and wristwatches manufactured in the United States, the company states.

Little, born in 1935, said they lived at the corner of D and North 16th streets then and although her father was drafted into the military, he was given a release, because he had only one eye. He did serve in the Arkansas National Guard though, she adds. Herman A. Niehouse is buried at Calvary Cemetery, not far from where he and his family lived for many years. His son, Herman M. Neihouse, passed away just a few months ago on Dec. 29, at the age of 85. Little also has a sister, Catherine McVay, in El Dorado.

In 1956, Leona Neihouse married a “damn Yankee,” she said, and moved to Manatawok, Wis., about 50 miles north of Milwaukee. She had been working for Southern Insurers on North Sixth Street downtown since graduating high school. She recalls Southern Insurors Inc. financier George D. Carney being the only person who wrote to her after she moved to Wisconsin to thank her for a job well done. Carney, she adds, also backed The Development Company and was a part owner of the Times Record until 1940.

Little said she had enough watches, nine in all, and wishes only to pass it on.


Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/