What Sam Wrote: the Carefree Sundial

Photo by Jennifer Grimes of the Tribune

Another in the series of “Our Side of the Valley” assignments took me on my first trip to Carefree (this was in 2002, mind you).

Switching over to writing was probably the best thing I ever did as far as getting to know the area; before that, my world existed mostly in the area between Camelback and Baseline roads, and Country Club Drive and Mill Avenue. (If I counted driving in to Phoenix for the gay bars, maybe Seventh Avenue.)  But after a year on the job, I’d been pretty much everywhere in the Valley — that knowledge inspired me to do a photo quiz that challenged readers to identify local landmarks from all over the East Valley. The prize was a gift certificate from one of the restaurants that Margo at Margo Media represented. (She was awesome to work with and her restaurants and club openings always provided a little glamour to the drudge life of a newspaper writer.)

SO good.

When my friend David was in town a few weeks ago, on our way to El Encanto I took him and Mr. Torres to the sundial first. There was some art fair going on — isn’t there always in Carefree this time of year? — so there was no parking and I think a cover charge, which was absurd so we contented ourselves with a drive-by, then headed off for prickly pear margaritas and way more Mexican food than we should have attempted to finish.

At any rate, the article is after the jump. I didn’t include a second sidebar that started out: “Although the Carefree Sundial is big and coppery, unless you’re a fan of literally watching shade creep across the ground it would be anticlimactic to spend more than — oh, five minutes there” and listed other places to visit in the area (but not El Encanto, which is in Cave Creek, not Carefree).

Big Time

Carefree’s oversized timepiece casts
a huge shadow over a quirky town

If downtown Carefree had a motto, it would be “Whimsy!” with a capitalized exclamation point. This is, after all, where some businesses face Wampum Way, others are at the intersection of Ho and Hum drives and the municipal court is, perhaps overly optimistically, on Easy Street. (Such lighthearted names make nearby Bloody Basin Road seem incongruous at best, or menacing at worst.)

And casting a long shadow in the park just west of Cave Creek Road is a world record that never was, a nobly intentioned project eventually undone by cost-effectiveness: The Carefree Sundial, one of the largest timepieces in the world.

It was meant to be the world’s largest back in 1959, when town developers K.T. Palmer and Tom Darlington were looking for an attraction to lure visitors to Carefree, which 40 years ago was in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they had been inspired by a Broadway musical that opened that year, “Gypsy,” in which some singing ecdysiasts insist: You’ve gotta have a gimmick.

Fountain Hills' fountain: such a big spurter!

(As far as Arizona gimmicks were concerned, Palmer and Darlington were ahead of the curve: Fountain Hills’ namesake waterpiece wasn’t installed until 1971, the same year that Lake Havasu City dedicated its reconstructed London Bridge.)

Palmer and Darlington had kicked around the idea of a giant sundial — tall, attention-getting, (vaguely) useful — and solar energy expert John Yellott was commissioned to research the plan. Unfortunately, Yellott found a sundial in Jaipur, India, so large that it was decided that the Arizona town would house the second-largest sundial in the world. (The Carefree Sundial later was also supplanted by one built for Team Disney in Florida, and now Carefree is content enough to boast the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere and leave it at that.)

The biggest part of the Carefree Sundial is its width: The circular plaza that serves as the clock face, with discs the size of steppingstones at the hour marks, is 90 feet in diameter. The copper-plated gnomon, the part that casts the shadow, is 4 feet wide, 72 feet long and points directly to the North Star. At its highest point, the gnomon rises 35 feet above the ground.

The top of the gnomon originally was surfaced with copper tubes coated with paint that absorbed the sun’s heat and transferred it to water inside the tubes; the water was pumped across the street to heat the Darlington-Palmer Building. This solar method proved ineffective, and now the sundial is used only to tell time.

Can visitors set their watches by it? That depends on the day they visit — or if they can do a little computation. Because the Earth’s rotation is not a perfect circle, the sundial is exact only on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the only days that the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west. (This year’s autumnal equinox is Sept. 22. No looting.) The sundial can be off as much as 15 minutes, but a plaque at the base of the sundial charts the number of minutes to add or subtract to the sundial’s time, depending on the date.

And one last note that shouldn’t be necessary but probably is: Although the sundial is lighted at night, it doesn’t work after the sun goes down.


The world’s largest sundial is in — well, see, that’s a debate that has bedeviled members of Yahoo! Groups, who posted about 5,300 messages over three years to a bulletin board discussion group about sundials and other gnomonics (a 50-cent word for timepieces). A sundial built for Team Disney in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is generally considered the tallest (120 feet), whereas another is the biggest laterally. Group members began suggesting such controversial and radical ideas for sundial measurement as “How about the VOLUME of the minimum-sized imaginary rectilinear ‘box’ which would contain it?” They also shared their computations. One man wrote of the Disney dial: “I made the simplying assumption that the top circle is not displaced some 6.8 feet from the bottom cone. Then I peeled the inverted truncated cone to place it on a plane, with an approximate shape of a trapezoid having a 377 ft base (circumference of the 120 ft diameter bottom circle), a 121 ft height (Pythagorean theorem applied to the tilted side of the cone) and a 264 ft top (circumference of the 84 ft diameter top circle).” Eventually, of course, their brains imploded from expending so much energy on minutiae, and the postings stopped in mid-2001.

WHAT SAM WORE: 3-27-11
The shirt: “Trojan” T-shirt, from Urban Outfitters.
The shorts: Plaid shorts by Fred & Howard, from Last Chance.
The shoes: Jack Purcell sneakers by Converse, from Nordstrom Rack.

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