Many Bolton residents, going all the way back to 1795, have climbed the steeple stairs each week to wind and tinker with the old town clock. Some of the more recent caretakers have signed the walls in the clock room— “Took over town clock, Jan 10, 1972, Eric Houghton”; “Peter Bonazzoli, still winding, 10-04-02”.
Back in the middle and second half of the 1800’s, the clock was Joel Sawyer’s charge. Known as “Uncle Joel,” Sawyer was a watchmaker and millwright who lived in a big house that used to stand about where 680 Main Street is today, just east of Pond Park. A watchmaker who lived across the street from the town clock, how perfect.
But Uncle Joel was something of a character, according to William Ellery Leonard. Leonard, a poet and a scholar, spent some of his teenage years in Bolton in the early 1890’s and wrote about them with affection later in his autobiography, The Locomotive-God. He relates this short vignette about Joel Sawyer and the town clock:
Meet florid Uncle Joel with his goatee and cane. He is eighty-six and a little cracked… He had been a watch-maker in his prime and once long ago the big clock in the ancient steeple had been his to keep in order. That big clock was still always on his mind. Whenever the great hands on its four faces failed to keep up with the sun, or whenever the bell crazily struck twelve as the haycock shadows lay longest or as the harvest moon rose over the barns, the villagers, looking up from cultivator or milk-pail or woodpile all over the parish, would say, “Uncle Joel has got into the steeple again.”
They kept the portico door locked. But he would filch the key, or steal in during service or repairs, and toil up the steeple stairs and tinker with his crippled fingers on the old familiar springs and wheels. Buzz, whizz, zip! And then he would descend triumphantly happy. They kept the door locked. They did not particularly object to the clock’s being wrong, but they didn’t want Uncle Joel to break his neck. Robert Frost, meet Uncle Joel.
After Uncle Joel’s death the clock stopped going too. (Hawthorne would have made a tale of this.) I got a letter from my mother…”The clock in the old church is doing duty after a long silence. The town is now in charge. It struck 200 when first started.”
Making up for lost time….