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The Stevens Tower Clock at the Topsfield, MA, Town Hall

Page history last edited by Topsfield Town Library 1 year, 7 months ago

 

by Bruce R. Bolnick

 

For nearly a hundred and fifty years, the town hall in Topsfield, MA, has been crowned by a tower clock produced in Boston by Geo. M. Stevens & Co. in the 1870s. In his definitive history of the Stevens tower clocks (NAWCC Bulletin, 1994)[1]  Frederick Shelley included a pair of photos on page 146 (Figure 29) showing the mechanism for Stevens Model 3A clock #88, installed in Ellenville, NY, in 1874, and Model 3A clock #50, installed in Topsfield, MA, town hall in 1879. Keep those dates in mind!

 

The accompanying text explains that Model 3A was produced from 1874 to 1878 and then superseded in 1879 by Model 3B, introducing minor changes to the curve of the time plates and strike lever connections. The text also notes that, as of 1994, only six Model 3A clocks were known to have survived. 

 

It may seem odd that the Model 3A clock in Topsfield was installed in 1879, one year after Stevens & Co. stopped producing that particular model. And it is equally odd to read that clock #50 in Topsfield was installed five years after clock #88 in Ellenville. But there is a simple explanation for both anomalies: the following contemporaneous records show conclusively that the Topsfield Town Hall clock was actually installed in 1874, not 1879 as cited in the Shelley article.[2]  

 

Salem Gazette, March 7, 1873:  

“The town voted to build a town hall during the present year, the expense not to exceed $13,000, to be erected on the Common near the Congregational Church.  $12,000 voted to be raised for the current expenses during the year. It is hoped that a clock will be in readiness by certain parties when the hall is completed, $300 already having been raised for that purpose.”  

 

Salem Gazette, August, 12, 1874:

"Topsfield can boast of a town clock, in good running order, placed last week in the new Town Hall, which is nearly completed...."

 

Salem Gazette, December 23, 1874, from the Full Report on the Town Hall Dedication:  

"The furnishing of the hall is of a neat and substantial kind, and the hall itself looks quite brilliant when fully lighted, with its bracket lights and two neat chandeliers. There is also a clock in the tower with convenient dials, and, with the aid of an electrical wire, it strikes out the passing hours upon the bell in the steeple of the neighboring church. This clock was paid for through the instrumentality of an amateur dramatic club composed of the young people of the town, while the cost of the electrical connection was defrayed by certain citizens…”  

 

Salem Gazette, December 23, 1874, from the Report on the Town Hall Dedication:  

"Mr. Poole then read a communication from the dramatic club giving the particulars of the town clock history, and their raising, by public entertainment, $325…"

 

In summary, contemporary news accounts show that the clock had already been funded, mounted in place and begun to operate by the time of the Town Hall Dedication ceremony on December 16, 1874.  The incorrect date of 1879 given in Shelley’s article might have arisen from an error in reading the archives from Stevens & Co. Or it could have been a simple typographical error in the archives or the process of producing the published article. Whatever the source of the 1879 dating, it is useful now to correct the record and establish that the historic Stevens Model 3A tower clock at Topsfield Town Hall was indeed installed in 1874.

 

Subsequent history of the clock has been neatly summarized in a brochure prepared in 2007 by the Keepers of the Clock and the Topsfield Historical Society, entitled “Welcome to the Topsfield Town Hall Clock.” To quote key passages -- with thanks to Norm Isler, Keeper of the Clock and President of the Historical Society:

 

“For its first 124 years the clock relied upon volunteers to climb up the staircase and rewind it every eight days. This regular winding did not always occur and, by 1989, the clock was no longer operating when Edwin Bowerman was appointed Keeper. Ed adjusted the mechanism and kept it wound faithfully until 1996-97 when Dick Adams took his place. By 2000 the clock had ceased operation due to Adam’s passing.

 

“In June of 2000 the Selectmen appointed Bob Winship and Norm Isler Keepers of the Clock. Both were retired engineers. Norm in turn recruited Bill Toth, a retired MIT Draper Lab engineer and clock fancier, and the three of them working as a team put the clock back in working order including applying gold leaf to the hands. Bob and Norm also wrote a winding system specification and selected a vendor to meet it; the concept being to drive the clock through its own mechanism by providing an electric drive and clutch to turn the shaft previously turned by a hand crank. This permitted the 300 Lb. driving weight to be lifted automatically about 12 feet up into the tower, thus providing the energy needed to operate the system without the attention of a human operator.

“Funding for this project was graciously provided by Sue Kimball and the Topsfield Historical Society. No town funds were used in this project.

 

“We hope you enjoy your visit! 

 


[1] Frederick Shelley, “George M. Stevens & Company Tower Clocks,” NAWCC (National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors) Bulletin, Volume 36/2, Number 289, (April, 1994), pp. 131-150.

[2] The contemporaneous reports cited here are from the Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, Volumes XXVI (1921) and XXVII (1922). These volumes are available, searchable, and downloadable at: http://www.topsfieldhistory.org/collections/collections/show/1

 


References / Further Reading

Bolnick, B. R. (2020). The Stevens Tower Clock at the Topsfield, MA, Town Hall. [Used by permission of the author. A printed copy may be found in the Topsfield Town Library Vertical File.] 

 

 


Contents

Topsfield Times: A Community and Local History Resource

WKT

 

 

 

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