A look back at time

  • The first meetinghouse, built by the Town of Hopkinton in 1766 on the site of the First Congregational Church of Hopkinton, was destroyed by fire in 1789 and replaced the same year. That new house, acquired by the First Congregational Society, was significantly remodeled and formally dedicated on Dec. 26, 1839. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • The First Church of Hopkinton served as the town meetinghouse for both a government and religious purposes until the late 1800s when a change in state law required the purposed to be separated. Town hall moved a bit up Main Street. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • Lee Wilder, 77, of Hopkinton, a volunteer who helps to oversee the clock's maintenance, examines its gears. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • Lee Wilder, 77, of Hopkinton, a volunteer who helps to oversee the clock's maintenance, examines its gears. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • Lee Wilder, 77, of Hopkinton, a volunteer caretaker of the town clock, turns a crank to wind the timing cable of the clock. A second cable controls the bell's tolling hammer. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • The main mechanism of the Hopkinton Town Clock, purchased in 1891 for $300 from the Howard Clock Company of Boston, Mass. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • The main mechanism of the Hopkinton Town Clock, purchased in 1891 for $300 from the Howard Clock Company of Boston, Mass. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • Gears marked with minutes run the Hopkinton Town Clock's three sets of hands. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • A view over Hopkinton's Main Street as seen from the bell town of First Congregational Church on April 14, 2019. The steeple of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church is seen in the distance. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

  • The 1811 Revere and Sons bell in the steeple of First Congregational Church of Hopkinton. Sarah Pearson—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/18/2019 12:06:05 PM
Modified: 4/18/2019 12:05:55 PM

For more than 260 years, a meetinghouse has sat at the crossroads of Briar Hill and Hopkinton roads overlooking Hopkinton’s Main Street. The current building, now First Congregational Church, has been keeping watch since 1789 when it was rebuilt following a fire. 

Since 1891, a clock has sat in its perch ticking away the minutes. 

That year, the Hopkinton village residents, largely summertime visitors raised $300 for a clock through a concert held at the church and pledges. That covered the cost of the E. Howard and Co. clock and for a two-night stay at the Perkins Inn for the workman who came up on the train from Boston to install it.

On Aug. 18, 1891 at 5:35 p.m., the town clock was running.

But by the early 2000s, the tick-tocking stopped.  

Lee Wilder, 77, of Hopkinton has lived in town since he was four. He saw the clock wasn’t running and decided to do something about it. 

“I get involved in this because it wasn’t running,” Wilder said. “I went to a precinct meeting and asked how come the clock isn’t running and they said ‘We don’t know, see what you can do.’ ”

But it was a bit trickier than just fixing it. First, he had to figure out who owned it and who would be responsible for paying for repairs. 

As the town meetinghouse, the building originally housed both town and church gatherings. People paid taxes, which supported the meetinghouse, the minister and town expenses. But after New Hampshire passed the 1819 Toleration Act saying that taxpayer money couldn’t be raised for religious institutions, there was a split. 

“In February 1839, the town sold this building to the First Congregational Society, supposedly for a dollar,” Wilder said. “Then the First Congregational Society paid for all the church expenses. Taxpayers money went to town expenses.” Town business moved to a town hall on Main Street. 

After making some inquiries and doing a bit of digging into documents, Wilder said a memorandum of understanding was penned explaining who owned what with regards to the clock. The building was owned by the church, as was the 1811 Revere and Sons bell, since it was in the building when purchased from the town. 

The  Hopkinton Village Precinct owned the clock and all its works, like weights and hands.

The church owns the room in the tower that held the clock mechanism and clock faces. 

To get to the clock’s inner workings, you climb one set of stairs to the choir loft. A door in the corner can be accessed standing on a built-in bench. Once through, there are more stairs that look more like what you’d find in an attic: bare wood planks with no risers. This set of stairs will take you to a landing level with the ceiling of the main portion of the church. In the front wall of the church, you might be able to spot the cables hanging on to granite weights, or if you time it right, the weights themselves. There’s also the clock pendulum encased in a wooden box (repurposed from the shipping crate used to carry the clock from Boston to Concord to Hopkinton). 

More stairs, now looking more like a ship’s ladder and barely wide enough for a single person to pass, bring you up to the clock room. You’ll have to straddle one of the church’s hand-hewn beams that diagonally crosses the doorway to enter.

The clock room seems a bit like a treehouse, small and square. Wood planks make up the floor, ceiling and walls. There is one window that faces north over the back of the church. The other walls have the clock faces. 

To access the bell, located right above the clock mechanism, you have to climb another ship ladder and push a ceiling portal open.

You can imagine bringing up tools or materials would be a challenge in the dark, narrow, steep spaces, both for its installation and restoration.

“Well, we came up here,” Wilder said. “Stapled to the ceiling was a piece of plastic because there were so many bats here, guano was coming down through the ceiling. ... That’s where we started, first cleaning it up, putting the ceiling all back together, supporting the ceiling, putting screen around the shafts that go out to the faces.”

Wilder is quick to share credit for the clocks repairs, saying he was mostly a facilitator.

Philip D’Avanza of D’Avanza Clock Repair in Goffstown, a professional tower clock fixer came to check out why the town clock wasn’t running. 

“What was the matter was, the gears at the end of the shaft that run the hands had never been oiled, because you couldn’t get to them,” Wilder said. “So a couple of guys and I put some staging out there so that you could get at it. (D’Avanza) took it all apart and took the gears back to his machine shop, made new ones, and brought them back and installed them.”

The hands are now oiled twice a year.

Also, the hammer that rings the bell had broken. The rope to manually ring the bell had been pulled while the hammer was down and as the bell swung it hit the hammer and broke the head off. 

“It’s an eight-day clock; it will run for eight days on one winding,” Wilder said. So it is wound about once a week. 

“Various people have wound it over the years, in fact, as a kid I wound it for a while,” he said. “It’s easier to have someone in the church wind it ‘cause they’re here every Sunday.”

There are two sets of weights one controls the timing, one controls the bell’s hammer. 

It takes about 25 cranks to wind the timing side of the clock.

The strike side is more difficult, about 180 turns. Plus, the weight is heavier, because it requires a lot of strength to pull the bell’s hammer (which is 30 pounds itself.)

As the weights go down throughout the week, the gears click away the seconds.

“I’m interested in old things,” Wilder said.  “I just thought since the clock is up there, it ought to be running.” 

So for the last decade, it’s been back up and running, giving time to the passers-by of Hopkinton’s Main Street and ringing away the hours.

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