Westborough clockmaker Gardner Parker was in high demand

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Westborough clockmaker Gardner Parker was in high demand
On maps, the site of Gardner Parker’s mill was called “Parker’s Folly,” and eventually just Folly Lane. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

WESTBOROUGH – The Smithsonian Institution, Sturbridge Village, Grafton’s Willard Clock Museum, or, even closer, the Westborough Historical Society. Here you can admire up close the workmanship of Westborough’s expert clockmaker, Gardner Parker (1772-1816).
Parker arrived in Westborough at age 5 in 1777 after his father, Isaac, acquired a sawmill on the Assabet River. After he attended school for a short time, it was apparent that working with machines rather than academics was his forte.

So Parker was apprenticed at age 14 to the most famous clockmakers in the country – the Willard family in Grafton.

Parker showed an early talent for clockmaking. He mastered the complex mechanics, including the workings of pendulums and weights, as well as how to create guns, locks and wooden cabinetry.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1790, Parker set up a small workshop in Westborough. At the time, water power was beginning to revolutionize manufacturing.
Since the clock parts he created had to be filed, and the lathe was manually operated, Parker experimented using water power. With the family sawmill as a model, he built a two-story, two-room factory at the end of Whitney and Heath Streets, near a tributary of the Assabet River. The years of 1805 to 1815 were spent constructing, equipping and improving Parker’s factory, which was one of the first in Westborough.

Parker proved to be an expert at making all types of clocks, including tower clocks. One of his massive tower clocks was installed in 1801 in Westborough’s second Meeting House in the Town Square. This tower clock was accompanied by his clock and bell system in 1806. In 1809, Parker built and installed in the Baptist Church Westborough’s first organ.

An ad in the October 1803 “Worcester Spy” states that at Parker’s shop “may be had all kinds of clocks at the shortest notice for cash or approved credit, such as large clocks for steeples with any number of dials, clocks that will run a year with one winding, chime clocks that will delight the ear with a different piece of music every day in the week, common eight-day clocks with mahogany or cherry cases, price $45 to $75, which can be so packed up as to be sent to any part of the country without damage, with directions to set them a going without the assistance of a clockmaker.”

Parker’s handcrafted eight-day (or tall) clocks were country versions of the sophisticated Boston tall clocks. The Westborough Historical Society displays a stately Parker eight-day clock created for Eli Whitney’s parents.

This handsome tall clock belonging to the Whitney family disappeared until discovered in Connecticut in 1951. Westborough townspeople raised $720 to purchase and return home this piece of Westborough history.

At times, Parker imported finely painted clockfaces and metal parts from England. Payment for a Gardner Parker clock was often in raw materials, such as brass, iron and wood. His craftsmanship was in high demand, resulting in 10 to 12 commissions a year, with 200 clocks attributed to him over his 15-year career.

Parker worked for a decade to perfect his dam and mill design, but the water wheel proved too heavy and the dam ineffective. The brook’s water flow simply was not sufficiently powerful.

Discouraged, in 1816 at age 44, Parker took his own life. On maps the site of his failed mill was called “Parker’s Folly,” and eventually just “Folly Lane.”

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