GROTON — After 10 years and 500 man hours, residents are able once again to measure their days by the dulcet tones of the Paul Revere forged bell atop of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church located prominently in the town’s center.
According to local historian Earl Carter, the bell stopped ringing, automatically at least, in 2001, when the clockwork mechanism that guided it literally stripped its gears, allowing only for a manual operation on Sunday mornings to call congregants to church.
“I first began this project almost 10 years ago,” revealed Carter, who, as owner of the Metric Screw and Tool Co., was not unfamiliar with basic mechanics. “What had happened was that the clock was so old and with so many worn parts, that as it was wound up, the top of the main gear became worn and the lever, or pawl as it’s called, that was supposed to fall in between the teeth to keep it from flying, was not going down fully between the teeth. Whoever was winding it at the time didn’t know that so that vibrations, maybe from traffic on Main Street, caused the lever to snap out of position. When that happened, the heavy weights started going down very fast and when the pawl at some point snapped back into position, it stripped off many of the gear’s teeth, making it useless and in need of being replaced.”
Easier said than done.
The gear itself was bent out of shape and had to be straightened out and trued because buying a new part was out of the question.
“You can’t buy new parts for this clock because there’s no such thing,” said Carter. “They don’t exist. If a new gear had to be made special it would cost between $3,000 and $4,000. So I ended up remaking all the gears in my shop. Many of the bearings and bushings were also very worn and all of them had to be replaced too. And two of the arbors that hold the gears in place were bent and had to be corrected and straightened along with many other severely worn parts.”
The First Parish Church is itself an important landmark in town which, according to Carter, was not built so much as the local Unitarian Church but as a place of worship for the entire town as mandated by colonial law. The church also served as an important place for such municipal business as Town Meetings and as the seat for Middlesex County where court was held.
And for many of these functions, the church’s clock was instrumental in letting people know when Town Meeting was being held or court was in session. Located in the belfry, the flatbed style clock was made and installed in 1809, over two centuries ago, by clockmaker James Ridgeway.
“The glory of this is that Ridgeway built only one clock and built it right here in Groton practically right across the street from the church,” said Carter. “He apprenticed under Abel Stowell in Worcester who was known worldwide as a silversmith and clockmaker. Ridgeway himself ended up marrying Abel’s daughter, Faithy, and moved to Groton in order to build our clock. He lived here for six or eight years. And like all craftsmen of his day, Ridgeway could do anything besides clockmaking, he was also a silversmith and watchmaker.
“The clock cost the church between $33 and $34 dollars and Ridgeway probably worked well over a year to build it,” said Carter. “Most of its parts were made right in his Groton shop.
Carter said Ridgeway did the work from his own castings and equipment, even going so far as milling the teeth of the clock’s gears. In addition, the clock’s two foot-long arbors and other shafts were hand forged.
When completed, the clock came to about 5 feet in length, 2 feet in width, and stood about 36 inches off the floor. With a total of 72 stairs leading up to the mechanism where it rested in the belfry, the height of the steeple was important due to the way in which the clock was powered.
“The clock is powered by two soapstone weights each about 400 pounds that were quarried right here in town by the Fitch family,” said Carter. “The weights are suspended on cables that stretch from the clock at the top of the belfry to the bottom of the church, a length of about 124 feet, then through a pulley at the weight and back up to be secured in the belfry. Because the church was built eight or nine years before the clock was installed, the height of the steeple was not planned to suit this particular clock mechanism.”
Although the view from outside the church presents clock faces on three sides of the steeple, in reality, the exposed portion represents only one part of the clock mechanism. The other half is comprised of what is called the “strike” portion that rings the bell every hour. Both portions come together in the gearing, which is wound once a week with a two-foot-long crank handle. Cranking the weight and lifting it all the way up to the top is about 50 feet and as the weight goes down again, it puts tension on the gears running the clock The biggest gear is about a foot and a half in diameter with a six-foot-long pendulum helping to keep the time.
And yet, Carter’s involvement with repairing the complex mechanism happened almost by accident.
“I was on the building and grounds committee for a few years prior to the crash,” explained Carter. “When it happened, I was the first up there to find out what happened and started working on it at that point. At the time, I had no intention of doing it myself, so I checked into the cost and reported back to the trustees that hiring a professional clock man to fix it could possibly run as high as $20,000. It was a challenge to see how I could fix it. I just got going on it with no real plan in mind. So it just happened.”
But now, more than 10 years later, Carter said he finally put the finishing touches on the mechanism early in December and the clock itself has been keeping good time since just before Christmas. The bell’s deep tones have since been sounding over the town’s hills and dales, once more keeping the rhythm of daily life, informing residents when it is time to get up for work, go to school, and when supper’s ready.
“The word ‘indefinitely’ should never be used when you’re talking about old clocks,” said Carter with a wink. “This one’s got over 200 years on it now, but with the work I’ve done on it, it should last for a number of years.”
Carter said despite the major overhaul, the clock, like any other its age, would likely need regular maintenance as the years go on.
For instance, only a dozen years ago, Carter completely rebuilt one of the three assemblies of gears and shafts that turn the time-keeping mechanisms of the clock’s three faces.
“I’ve contacted a person in Worcester known for his work with clocks,” said Carter, whose own father had been a clock maker. “His name is John Rives and he has already been up to survey my work and to adjust and time the clock. That is extremely critical to its proper functioning. It’s very finicky work. It took a lot of tinkering to get the clock so it is running properly again.”
But for now at least, Carter confirmed that “the clock is running” and that “everything is going great!”