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Keeper of Ayer Mill tower clock gets time moving again

Keeper of Ayer Mill tower clock gets time moving again
The Eagle Tribune
Thursday, August 1, 2013

Heatwave stopped workings of giant timepiece

LAWRENCE — The recent heat wave was enough to halt time. At least that’s what happened when the torrid temperatures stopped the hands on the face of the city’s iconic Ayer Mill clock.

“The heat causes the pendulum to expand by 16th of an inch and changes the speed of the clock,” Charles E. Waites, keeper of the Ayer Mill clock, said yesterday. “The high heat over a couple of weeks, it did have an effect on the clock.”

Some area residents had noticed that hands had been stuck at 8:56. Once he climbed 220-feet above the city, Waites, 61, also discovered that the pulley which holds the main cables that drives the clock were dried. He oiled the pulley with the help of his son, Chris, something they do twice a year.

“If it runs dry, it doesn’t pull much weight and it affects the power on the clock,” said Waites who has been maintaining the clock for 22 years. The four-faced clock has been a beacon for thousands of workers and residents in Lawrence who rely on it to get the time. “No one likes a dead clock,” Waites said. “People want to know what time it is.”

The Ayer Mill clock is only 6 inches shorter than Big Ben in London. It was installed in 1910 by the E. Howard Company in Boston and features 15-foot pendulum powered by springs and gears, clockwork made out of brass and cast iron and 1,600 pounds of glass that holds the 12 -foot-long hands. It stopped working in the mid 1950s. A community-wide campaign raised nearly $1 million to restore it in 1991 including a new bell cast in the Netherlands. There’s a nearly $500,000 endowment for the tower’s maintenance and care under the jurisdiction of the Essex Community Foundation. The Ayer Mill houses the New Balance footwear company, however, the Essex County Community Foundation of Danvers is in charge of the clock’s maintenance. New Balance handles the upkeep of the tower.

“It’s important to maintain it because it’s a historic time piece for the Merrimack Valley and everyone watches it,” said Dave Welbourn, president and chief executive officer of Essex County Community Foundation.

Waites’ contract is for 10 hours a week. In addition to making sure the clock is functioning, his other duties include cleaning the levels leading to the clock tower, repairing broken cables and gears.

“This is a good old clock. As long as it gets a weekly maintenance, it will last forever,” Waites said .

“I know how well the clock is by the sounds it makes and right now it’s running pretty good,” he said. “Nothing is perfect, but we do our best to keep it running.”

“I love this clock. I was always fascinated by it even as a little kid,” Waites said.

Even after two heart surgeries, Waites said he will continue as keeper of the Ayer Mill clock.

“I will retire when I say so,” he quipped.

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