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the Ayer Mill Clock Tower

The Ayer Mill Clock Tower is the world’s largest mill clock. Its four big glass faces are only 6 inches smaller than Big Ben in London. It is the treasured icon and landmark of Lawrence, Massachusetts and its endowment and maintenance is managed by ECCF.

a brief history of Lawrence and the tower

Lawrence was formed in 1843 from land purchased from Methuen and Andover by successful businessmen from Lowell to establish a new textile manufacturing industry on the banks of the Merrimack River. Periods of boom followed periods of financial difficulty for the huge mills that attracted immigrant workers from all over Europe. By the 1890’s, a solution to stability appeared to be consolidation and in 1899 under the direction of Frederick Ayer, eight textile companies merged under a new trust: The American Woolen Company.

In 1906, president of the American Woolen Company, William Wood, Frederick Ayer’s son-in-law, completed construction of a huge new mill intended to produce all the yarn for the company and named it the Wood Worsted Mill. Just one wing of this new mill was half a mile long. The mill spun the fleece of 600,000 sheep in just five hours, but even with this capacity Wood soon realized that it could never produce all the yarn requirements of the company, so he began construction of the Ayer Mill, named after his father-in-law, in 1909.

The Ayer Mill, built to spin and dye yarn, was opened on October 3, 1910. Its grand, illuminated clock tower immediately became the architectural focal point of the Merrimack Valley.

1991 restoration

In 1955, due to competition from synthetic materials, the migration of mill companies to southern states and the end of war-time demand for woolen blankets and clothing, the American Woolen Company closed. Soon, the clock stopped working.

But in 1991, the community rallied to restore the clock that had become such an important symbol of industry, strength and history in the community. Over $1 million was raised and artisans were called in to bring it back to life.

Clemente Abascal, a realtor and community activist working on the effort, saw the restoration as a harbinger of hope.

“Once the economy starts turning around, the city of Lawrence will come back stronger than ever,” he said. “That clock symbolizes people at work.”

The original bell that had called thousands of people to and from work throughout the city has been lost for years, and was replaced by a beautiful, sonorous replica.

maintenance

After the restoration of the clock and tower was complete, maintenance of the clockworks became the responsibility of the Merrimack Valley Community Foundation, which merged into Essex County Community Foundation in 2004. ECCF, with the dedicated help of Charlie Waites, who has maintained the clock ever since it was restored, continues to care for this important timepiece. In late 2013 new, brighter, energy-efficient lighting was installed to make the Ayer Mill Clock visible far and wide.

With major support from New Balance, the Wood and Ayer families, and local foundations, ECCF has established a permanent endowment to ensure the health of the clock in perpetuity.

2021 restoration

When the west dial of the clock stopped working in the summer of 2021, ECCF decided to take the opportunity to perform additional routine maintenance. In November, Balzer Family Clock Works, which oversaw the 1991 restoration, will dismantle the clockworks, transport them to their Freeport, ME, workshop and spend the next six months carefully repairing and restoring each piece before reinstalling the clock to its home in the tower in the spring of 2022.

While the clock is being repaired, its faces will be illuminated nightly by programmable, multi-colored LED lights, which will be managed by caretaker, Chris Waites, and eventually taken over by nonprofit Groundwork Lawrence.

For more information on the 2021 restoration, see the full press release. 

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“I am grateful for the opportunity to improve and strengthen my knowledge in nonprofit management and governance. I do not know where else I could go and find such a range of opportunities!”

– 2019 Institute for Trustees attendee

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