After a nearly year-long restoration, the Ayer Mill Clock will tick once again
By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
On a recent summer day, a swift, refreshing breeze blows through the bell room of the Ayer Mill Clock Tower in Lawrence. From here, the entire city – its smokestacks, historic brick mill buildings and the winding Merrimack River – spreads out before you.
The story goes that the bell housed in this room, made by a German company for the 1991 restoration of the clock, and to replace the bell that was “stolen” decades earlier, was received at a discount due to the misspelling of the word “restoration” etched on its waist. It’s an amusing tale from the past about a place that holds so much history.
Outside the bell room, a resident peregrine falcon circles the blue skies surrounding the 267-foot brick tower, its wails lamenting our arrival, which has culminated in an exciting, but slightly intimidating climb up a series of narrow stairs and ladders to reach the top.
Today, Balzer Family Clock Works – a family-run business based in Maine that specializes in clock tower repair – is in the final stages of restoring the clock for the second time in 31 years. After eight months of laborious work, in a few weeks, the hands of the Ayer Mill Clock – one of the Merrimack Valley’s most iconic landmarks and said to be the largest mill clock in the world – will begin to keep time for the people of Lawrence once again. This is thanks to a longtime endowment managed by Essex County Community Foundation.
That part of the Ayer Mill Clock Tower’s historic past is a story built on industry and hope.
After World War II, the yarn mills that had flourished in Lawrence since the early 20th century began to close or move south. Soon the clock, which American Woolen Company president William Wood built in 1910 at Ayer Mill – named after his father-in-law Frederick Ayer – was abandoned. In time, this architectural focal point of the Merrimack Valley, a timepiece that called people to and from work for decades, stopped ticking.
But some residents of Lawrence never forgot what the clock symbolized: strength and optimism. In 1991, a group of community activists raised more than $1 million to bring it back to life.
“Once the economy starts turning around, the city of Lawrence will come back stronger than ever,” said Clemente Abascal, a local realtor who was working on the 1991 fundraising efforts. “That clock symbolizes people at work.”
At that time, the Balzer family was building a clock on the campus of Yale University and happened to catch a glimpse of the defunct Ayer Mill Clock on a drive from New Haven, Conn., to Freeport, Maine, where their business is based.
Linda Balzer said she remembers “chasing down” the story of the Ayer Mill Clock and was told by someone working on the restoration efforts, “You people dropped right out of heaven.”
“A whole community got involved,” Balzer recalls as she stands, 31 years later, in the clockworks room of Ayer Mill, one of four clock faces, each measuring 22.5 feet in diameter, looming behind her like a full moon.
After the 1991 restoration, maintenance of the clock landed in the hands of the Merrimack Valley Community Foundation, which merged with Essex County Community Foundation in 2004. With support from New Balance, whose factory store is now located in the former Ayer Mill; the Wood and Ayer families and private foundations, ECCF established a permanent endowment to ensure the health of the clock in perpetuity.
“ECCF is an organization that is built upon and highly values collaboration and collective action,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “The fact that the community came together to bring this important piece of Essex County history back to life is so special, and the community foundation is so proud to play a role in making sure it endures.”
Linda Balzer said that the Ayer Mill Clock, which is looked after by second generation caretaker Chris Waites, holds a special place in her family’s hearts too.
“This is the first really huge project we did,” said Balzer, whose family has been making clocks and watches since 1970, and working on clock towers since 1985.
[See historic pictures of Ayer Mill and other tower clock projects at www.balzerclockworks.com . ]
While we talk, Linda’s husband, Rich, and their son, Chris Balzer, a second-generation clockmaker, hoist pieces of the clock – including 40-pound counterweights and 12-foot-tall clock hands made of hard California redwood, newly painted and shellacked – through trap doors in the floors. They’ve started at the base of the tower atop the mill and climbed through the cistern room and the bell room until they emerge into the sun-filled dome that houses the clockworks, where we all, quite literally, stand in the middle of time. Cracked panes in the glass of the clock faces have already been replaced, and the Balzers will walk across thin planks of wood that stretch out to their centers to attach the giant hands.
“You’ve got to love it. It’s hard work,” said Rich Balzer who, at 75-years-old, is barely breaking a sweat.
On the upper level of the clockworks room, Chris is tinkering with the gears and levers that make up the heart of the Ayer Mill Clock. He explains how, in the 1930s and 40s, the clock bell tolled for curfew. He describes how he painstakingly restores original parts of the clock and makes them look like new. And he points out the tape line on the wall that marks the height of the pigeon guano that had piled up in the tower before the Balzers first arrived on scene in 1991.
“This one will always hold a special place because of how bad it was when we got here and how far we’ve come,” Chris Balzer said.
In the coming weeks, the Balzer family will “flip the switch,” which for these clock purists really means unleashing the power of gravity, and the hands of the Ayer Mill Clock, will move once again.
“The preservation of historic time pieces has always been a goal of ours,” said Rich Balzer, who refers to the clock – not the faces, but the inner workings, the heart – as “his girl.”
But keeping the Ayer Mill Clock ticking is about more than just the preservation of a timepiece. For the people of Lawrence, it’s an ongoing reminder of the city’s rich history, and the things that can endure when people work together.