The end of time—Part I

The Advisory Committee was not fooling around at their last meeting. It is town budget season, the most challenging budget season in years, and the good folks on the committee were chomping through funding requests like a combine working a wheatfield, a cloud of chaff in their wake. So when they landed on line-item 5290, which requested $200 for “Clock Winding,” and the proponent on the other side of the table did not have a ready defense, it took no time at all for the committee to recommend “moving that line to zero.”

But then, just as the committee chairman’s pen was about to mark his tally sheet, Selectman Plante, sitting in the audience, suggested with some delicacy that the committee check in with the Historical Commission before finalizing this recommendation. The chairman paused, the suggestion was accepted, and the committee moved on. The end of time was put off for a few weeks.

So what’s the “Clock Winding” line all about? The Town of Bolton, you see, has a town clock. It has had one since 1795. Walk or drive along Main Street in the center and you will see it, set beautifully against the sky in the base of the steeple of the First Parish Church, just below the belfry. The clock is a three-dial, manual-wind, quarter-striking tower clock made by E. Howard and Company of Boston. It displays time on 42-inch faces, each notated with roman numerals of gold positioned inside a circle of 60 gold points, all on black backgrounds. The hands are outlined in gold and are balanced with barely noticeable counterweights. They show the hour and minute with approximate accuracy…most of the time. They could also use a little freshening up.

This old clock is the second town clock. The original was lost in the fire of 1926 that destroyed the “Second Meeting House” in which it was mounted, a meeting house that had stood on the site since 1793. That original clock was purchased by the town and installed in 1795 by “Mr. Willard of Roxbury”—Simon Willard, one presumes.

Photo courtesy of Bolton Historical Society, Everett Collection

The picture at left shows the 1793 Second Meeting House, renamed First Parish Church, as it appeared in about 1902, well after the 1844 remodeling that transformed the building from a multi-purpose meeting house to a single-purpose house of worship, complete with traditional gothic motifs. The clock shown in this photo is the original 1795 Willard clock.

A scan through old town reports and histories reveals that the town has appropriated money to keep a clock going pretty much continuously since 1795, a year in which George Washington was president. That’s a long time. Entries relating to cleaning and repair appear in town reports throughout the 1800’s. In 1928, the town paid $1,187 to purchase and install the replacement clock and then shelled out an additional $1,625 to refurbish it in 1980.

Beginning in 1926,  yearly line items appear in the town budget for the winding of the clock. The town allocated $12 for winding in 1926, increased it to $25 in 1929, to $50 in 1972, $75 in 1981, and finally to $200 starting in 2001.

The old town clock has been described as the last remaining direct connection to a time when the parish and town were one. From the time of the Puritans until 1833, there was little distinction between parish and town—even the choice of parish minister was decided at town meeting, which itself was held in the church/meeting house. In 1833, Massachusetts disestablished the tradition of tax-supported parish meeting houses that commingled civic, political, and religious functions. It essentially decreed a “separation of church and state.” As a result, Bolton built its first town hall in 1834 right next the old Second Meeting House (the current town hall, built in 1853 of brick, stands on the site of that original 1834 wooden building, which burned). The members of the congregation organized themselves separate from town government as the First Parish and Religious Society, later renamed First Parish Church in Bolton, and took over the former meeting house. This resulted in the familiar configuration that we know today as shown in the recent photo above—the First Parish Church and the Bolton Town Hall sited next each other on what was once considered to be the town common. So, even though local government and some civic functions were moved to the town hall, the clock stayed in the spire, and the town has continued to maintaine it as a town clock to this day. When the town purchased and installed the replacement clock in the re-built First Parish Church in 1928, it was, in part, an acknowledgement of the long relationship of church and town.

In the “Report of the Clock Committee,” dated February 6, 1928, R.H Randall, James Townsend, Perley Sawyer, and E.A. Hackett wrote:

“Regarding the placing of a Town Clock in the New Parish Church spire, we believe that a town clock is a valuable asset for any community, and that a proper clock installed in the Church spire by the town would be of substantial service to the town and would promote and conserve civic spirit….Ownership of the clock by the Town can be safe-guarded by a legal agreement with the Church executives, covering the right of the Town to enter the church at any time for any purpose in connection with the clock or the ringing of the bell for fire, or for any other purpose.”

And so it was done.

I don’t think anyone today would strongly argue that the town clock serves a super-critical need in the community, for timekeeping anyway. But it certainly does contribute to the unique character of Bolton. It’s one of those little things, if you’re aware of it, that makes Bolton such a cool place. It is a direct connection to important history. Keeping it going can be viewed as honoring our history and honoring the wishes and intentions of those who cared for this town before us. I would hate to think that the old town clock, having survived to mark the passage of time in Bolton for so long, would be abandoned while under our brief care.

* * *

There is more to tell about this clock than I have time for today —in a followup post I’ll pay a visit to the church spire and wind the clock myself, and I’ll relate a great first-person vignette from over a hundred years ago about one of its caretakers. Come back soon for “the rest of the story.”

The historical background for this post came from sources that include: the two published town histories, About Bolton (1988) and History of Bolton (1938); from the Historical Properties Survey, Town of Bolton (Bolton Historical Commission); from various Annual Town Reports (in the Whitcomb History Room at the Bolton Public Library); and from Rev. Richard F. Jones, thirtieth minister of the First Parish of Bolton.  If I’ve gotten something wrong, as well I might, don’t hesitate to write.

—Roland

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