By Alexandra Molnar, Contributing Writer
Grafton – At the Willard House and Clock Museum, clocks of every shape and size, sitting squarely amidst other artifacts and art, highlight the importance of the Willard family’s inventions and their prolific work.
The 18th-century colonial house is brimming with over 70 Willard clocks and rooms full of inventions and relics of the industrious Grafton family. The members of the Willard family were originally shoemakers until Benjamin Willard ventured to Connecticut to learn the craft of building clocks. They continued to live in the cozy, sprawling house for three generations. In 1971, the Robinsons, a Grafton family, purchased the property and founded the Willard Clock Museum.
Four brothers, born between 1743 and 1757, give the museum its clock-making history and artifacts. Simon Willard, the most prolific brother, owned three patents, the most significant being the Improved Timepiece, or “banjo clock,” patented in 1802.
The movements of the arms of the clock, which denote the time, are driven by weights. Originally, clocks needed a lot of space for the weights to drop because they were wound only once a week. With Simon’s Improved Timepiece, clocks could be made smaller, and were therefore more affordable, at half the price of a tall clock.
Throughout his lifetime, Simon, who learned clock making from his brother, Benjamin, sold his clocks across the eastern seaboard as far south as Virginia. In fact, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Simon to design and build a clock for a building at the modern-day University of Virginia. The Old State House in Boston also boasts a Simon Willard Tower Clock.
When you think of clock making, you may imagine that the maker produces every part of the clock, from the time mechanism to the wooden frame. Actually, the Willards produced just the movements, which is the term for the clock mechanism. The clock face, usually brass, was imported from England. The cases were typically made by local cabinetmakers.
In the keeping room, the oldest part of the house built in 1745, there are a multitude of small 30-hour clocks, called Grafton Wall Clocks. Otherwise known as “Experimental Clocks,” these clocks were built in the 1770s to 1780. Each one is different from one another as they were Simon’s attempts to build the Improved Timepiece.
One of the most unique objects in the room is a clock jack used to rotate meat in front of the fire. A clock mechanism causes the metal rod to turn slowly, thus exposing the meat to the fire for a slow cook. Although not a Willard-built object – it was imported from England – Simon Willard did invent a weight-driven clock jack, patented in 1784.
The house contains 1,000 to 2,000 pieces, including many period objects that were purchased to make visitors feel like they are guests in the Willards’ home in the days when they lived in it and toiled in their workshop.
In the parlor, you can step up to Simon’s desk and chair where his thick glasses lay on a book giving you the impression that he will return any minute. A portrait of Simon in his 40s presides over the room.
A chronometer, invented by Simon’s son, Simon Jr., can be found in the Willard room upstairs. This interesting object is a ship’s clock that can determine longitude and was significant for sea travel. Before its invention, clocks did not work on ships because the rocking motion on the boat affected the pendulum swing.
The clock workshop, built around 1756, features a clock exposing how the weights function within the clock to clarify the basic mechanics and leave you with a new understanding and appreciation for an invention that still keeps us on time today.
Willard House and Clock Museum is located at 11 Willard St. in North Grafton. Visit www.willardhouse.org for hours and information.