EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 18, 2010

Ayer Mill clock tower, a Lawrence icon, turns 100

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

LAWRENCE — It was a towering icon of American industry, a ringing symbol of the working class in this city and across the nation for half a century.

By the late 1950s it had become something else: a crumbling relic of Lawrence's vanishing glory and a 267-foot-high roost for generations of pigeons that left behind tons of droppings during the four decades they had the run of the place.

The city still struggles, but a million-dollar restoration brought back the Ayer Mill clock tower in 1991.

On Oct. 3, it turns 100.

"The local people, by making that investment in the tower, (showed) their desire and endeavor to change the direction of Lawrence," said David Tory of the Essex County Community Foundation, the successor of

the company that took possession of the tower as part of the renovation. "It was a message to the world: We want Lawrence to come back, and an indication of ato refurbish its most obvious landmark."

The clock tower's 4,850-pound copper and tin bell first pealed across the Merrimack River valley at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3, 1910, when mill owner Frederick Ayer pulled the rope nine times to signal bedtime to his hundreds of employees. At a celebration on Oct. 3, Charlie Waites, the keeper of the clock, will pull the rope 100 times to mark each year in the tower's centennial, although the peals will come from a replica of the original bell that was manufactured in the Netherlands for $36,000 as part of the 1991 restoration. The original bell disappeared after the mill closed, possibly melted for scrap or sent downriver to serve another tower.

If the bell is a replica, the 2,000 pounds of brass and cast-iron that make up the clockworks are original. The works, which include a 14.5-foot pendulum that powers the springs and gears, along with the four transparent faces of the clock and the tower's copper roof, were the major parts of the $1 million renovation.

Rick Balzer, the clockmaker who rebuilt the Lawrence clock in his Freeport, Maine, studio, will speak at the centennial celebration.

"I've got to talk basics with you," Balzer said in response to a question about why the clock is worth saving, then launched into a description of the double three-legged gravity escapement and other pieces of clock guts that only a clockmaker could love — or understand.

"How long will your car last — 100,000 miles? 200,000 miles?" he asked. "And you run it an hour or two a day, maybe? And you get rid of it after three or five years? This thing goes nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it's still going. Show me another machine that can do that. That alone should be a good reason to save it."

Balzer's wife, Linda, a partner in the project, recalled the hopeless conditions that greeted her when she walked through the tower for the first time.

"You can see the pigeon dung is halfway up the leg," she said, pointing out the piles of waste in a photograph of the structure that supports the clockworks. "I heard it was 20 tons. It was also infested with mice. They were living in the pigeon dung. It was unbelievable. A hazardous waste company removed the dung. There was so much dust (coming out of the tower) that people thought it was on fire."

The restored tower, atop a mill building where New Balance assembles pieces of shoes made in China, operates on a budget of up to $15,000 a year, supported by a $400,000 endowment. The Essex County Community Foundation recently began soliciting contributions to replace the interior lighting in the tower, which will allow its glass dials to be illuminated from within.

The Oct. 3 centennial celebration will feature a raffle — which will include a tour of the clock tower — to help reach the $40,000 goal to redo the lighting. The celebration begins at the tower at 2 p.m.

• • •

Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.