November 10, 2009

Simon Willard: Master Clockmaker


“Time was when it was a requisite to have one of Willard’s clocks…as it is now to have a piano forte.”
[1856 biography on Willard]

Simon Willard is considered one of the finest clock makers in American history. His tall clocks were made by hand, and placed in impressive “Roxbury cases” as well as his patent timepieces, commonly known as banjo clocks, which were prized possessions when new, and which are today coveted by families who inherited them as well as by collectors alike.

Simon Willard (1753-1848) was the seventh son of Benjamin and Sarah Brooks Willard, and was raised on a farm in Grafton where he and three of his brothers, Benjamin, Aaron and Ephraim became clock makers; Simon Willard was apprenticed at the age of thirteen to Mr. Morris in Grafton, learning his trade as a clockmaker. During the Revolution, he served in the Grafton Militia Company under Captain Aaron Kimball and was a “Minuteman” who responded to the Lexington alarm. In 1775, he married Hannah Willard, his first cousin, who died in childbirth the next year; his second wife was Mary Bird Leeds (1763-1823,) the daughter of Edward and Mary Starr Bird of Dorchester, and the widow of Richard Leeds, by whom he had eleven children.

Willard along with his brother Aaron Willard moved to Roxbury in 1780, to a small wood framed house at 2196 Roxbury (now Washington) Street, which led to “the Neck” the only land route into Boston and a prime location for his business. He lived and worked “At the Sign of the New Clock,” a large clock that projected from the building and became a prominent landmark and his “habits of industry, and the intense study of his art, left him but little time for attention to matters of public interest.” As a clockmaker, and an ingenious inventor, he patented in 1784 a clock jack that was used for roasting meat by rotation. In 1802 his “Willard Patent Timepiece” was recorded, and in 1819 his patent for an alarm clock was recorded; he also invented the machinery for the revolving lights for lighthouses. However, his skill as a hand maker of clocks was unrivaled and led to his being appointed, for fifty years, as Keeper of the Clocks at Harvard College, and commissions for a clock in the United States Capitol, the University of Virginia as well as gallery clocks (Roxbury Meetinghouse and the Second Church in Dorchester) as well as numerous turret clocks throughout New England. He retired in 1839 after seven decades of success with a name that had become synonymous with high quality timepieces and where he “passed his time in his family and shop; for the enjoyment of which ‘age withered not his powers.”

In later life, following the death of his wife in 1823, Simon Willard lived successively with his children, first at the home of Simon Willard, Jr. in Boston, then at Edward and Sarah Brooks Willard Bird on Boston Street (now Columbia Road) adjacent to the Old North Burying Ground, and later with his daughter Mary, the wife of Caleb Hobart. The Hobarts lived in an old house, later known as the Ruggles House, near the corner of Canton Avenue and Ruggles Lane, and here Caleb Hobart (1768-1843) worked as a butcher dealing chiefly in mutton. Hobart, a very married man having two wives and a large family before he married Mary Willard, owned a large tract of land just west of his home that was referred to as “Golgotha,” as “it was used as a place to dispose of the refuse from his slaughter house.” Of course, Jesus was crucified at Mount Calvary, and Golgotha known as the “place of the skull.” However, this area of Columbine and Valley Roads in the now elegant Columbine neighborhood of Milton, where Hobart deposited the accumulated refuse of his slaughter house, was so called for the vast amount of bones dumped there.

In the mid 1840’s Mary Willard Hobart (1793-1855) had taken her father in to live with her, as she had become a widow in 1843. Simon Willard, then an elderly man, had unimpaired sight and hearing, was described by his grandson, Alexander Claxton Cary as being a “little figure sitting in his arm chair by the window in Aunt Mary’s room at Milton. He used to sit in this arm chair most all day, now and then taking a short pair of steps by which he could reach the clock in the room, and opening it would do some little thing to it probably from habit, rather than from any fixing the clock needed. This clock was one of his own Timepieces. ….My brother tells me that at Milton, Grandfather went to visit Gen. [Moses] Whitney one day, upon coming home, our man Elijah offered to help Grandfather out of team. “Don’t help me out, don’t help me out,” said Grandfather “they will think I am an old man.”

Indeed by the mid 1840’s, Simon Willard was an old man, a grand old man, and had a justifiable reputation that was hard to emulate, even by his successful apprentices and rivals. He died in 1848 at the home of Isaac and Julia Willard Cary in Boston and was buried in the Eustis Street Burial Ground in Roxbury. His daughter Mary Hobart later moved her parents' remains to her lot at Forest Hills Cemetery where a Gothic brownstone monument designed by Alpheus Cary marks his final resting place. As it said in his obituary in the Boston Daily Advertiser that “Mr. Willard, after his long dealings with Time, has now left him for eternity. Pease [sic] to his blameless and honest memory!”

1 comment:

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