It is December 21, 2012, the date of the Winter Solstice and the supposed end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, and Will’s watch is ticking right along.
Not only is the watch a family heirloom, but like any proper relic, there is a neat story that goes along with it.
Will is Will Hewett of Howard’s Barber Shop on Howe Street, and the watch is Elgin, pocket-style and golden. It shines brightly as if new, even inside the walls of the barber shop.
Purchased by his maternal great-grandfather, Neils Jorgensen, in Philadelphia in 1896, Hewett’s inherited timepiece will be 118 years old once the calendar flips over.
Neils immigrated to America from Norway that same year, coming through Ellis Island.
“He came here for the same reason as everybody,” Hewett said. “Living in Norway during that time was pretty hard and they had to rely on mostly fishing and whaling. He wanted a better life.”
Neils was born in Tjome, Norway, on October 6, 1867. Tjome is located in the southeastern tip of the country and there you can find a tourist site known as Verdens End, which means “World’s End” or “The End of the World.” Tourists flock there for the scenic, endless open water views, but it’s not really “The End of the World.”
Neils came to Southport to work at the Quarantine Station in January 1896; a letter from a Marine Hospital Service surgeon announced the hiring.
He may have known some fellow countrymen working there already. The station’s Scandinavian contingent was appropriate and possibly necessary given the men’s strong statures and familiarity with matters of foreign ships. They could speak the native tongues of some of the ship captains.
Without the Quarantine Station, disease and sickness could easily move up the Cape Fear River and throughout North Carolina. Perhaps Neils was drawn to Southport because it sticks out on the map the way that Tjome does.
“He needed it to be a gold watch because he was around a lot of saltwater and gold would not corrode,” Hewett said of his great-grandfather’s timepiece.
A 1912 photograph lists an entirely Scandinavian crew at the station: four Danes and three Norwegians. Could the watch have been in Neils pocket that day?
Neils continued working at the Quarantine Station for years with men whose last names spelled the history of the area: Berg, Anderson and Sorensen. He married Emma Catherine Fullwood on Independence Day 1911 in Southport and bought the still-standing “T. Carr House” at 112 Dry Street for her and their four children.
Neils died in March 1920 from the flu epidemic and the Elgin watch was passed down. His offspring continued to help shape Southport.
Will’s grandfather and Neils’s son, William Porter (“Bill”) Jorgensen, would become a man everybody in the community knew and thought well of, a veritable “George Bailey” of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Bill Jorgensen was secretary-treasurer with Security Savings and Loan, the county tax collector and a member of the Southport Board of Aldermen.
“He did not have any enemies,” Hewett said. “He was from that old school of banking where he would try to help people any way that he could.”
He also kept the watch with him, one day breaking its springs when it struck a counter top. The watch went into the drawer, temporarily.
Bill Jorgensen died in 1968, and the Elgin National Watch Company ceased production of timepieces that same year. Bill lived long enough to see the birth of his grandson Will, but the watch lived on. Before Will’s grandmother died, she passed it on to him.
“The watch sat in a drawer at my grandmother’s house for many years,” Hewett said. “I always knew it was there. After I got it, it took me a couple of years to find someone who knew how to fix it.”
Will had joined the Army, worked as a sheriff’s deputy and in pest control and other assorted jobs in his younger years. After his father, Dempsey White Hewett; a long-time barber, passed away, Will heard the call of his dad’s profession.
“I fell right into it and now I feel like I’m here to stay,” he said. “I went to barber school in Winston-Salem last year, the same school my dad went to; I found a guy, a master watchsmith, who had the necessary tools and parts to do it.”
Elgin watches carry special crystals and the original parts are hard to come by. Will says he treasures it as a reminder of his family’s long history in this area.
And with such a long family history, and with the efforts of his mother Joyce and others, the story of Neils Jorgensen lives on. It’s an important story, for this is also the family tree of current mayor Robert Howard, Will’s mother’s first cousin. Neils was Howard’s grandfather.
“Even though I did not really know my grandfather, he must have been quite a person,” Howard said. “He raised three sons and a daughter of character that I try to emulate in my life.”
It can be easily argued Southport, just like America, was built on the backs of immigrants, who came here searching for a better life. Without Neils Jorgensen and his watch that kept time and now does again, there would probably be a very different Southport than it is today.
Who knows, perhaps that golden Elgin pocket watch bought long ago will still be ticking on through the next prophesied doomsday, maybe even thereafter.
Time will tell.