FARMINGTON — On sleepless, anxious nights — a common occurrence for me during the pandemic — my bronze neighbor, the bell at the Franklin County courthouse, incessantly reminds me that yet another ghastly hour has passed.

Luann Yetter who lives just down the street from the courthouse shared a similar restless irritability with the bell.

“I don’t think it wakes me up, but I think if I am having a restless night and am up anyway, I hear that bell and I hear it hour after hour and it reminds me of how I am still awake,” Yetter said in a Zoom interview. “I would say that is the one time that it annoys me.” 

Now that the pandemic dictates that I work from home, I find each passing hour’s productivity measured by the tolling of the bell. This past year, the county clock has seeped into my existence, driving me mad with its 24 daily reminders that time is constantly passing.

I set out on this article hoping to meet the appropriate people in charge of the clock who I could convince to schedule the bell to only ring from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was an ignorant and naïve mission.

I met Nicholas Palmer, the Franklin County maintenance manager, who climbs the narrow wooden staircase to the courthouse attic twice a week to wind the Howard tower clock.

“We choose to wind it twice a week so we’re not up here for more than 20 minutes at a time,” Palmer said after ascending a wooden ladder from the attic to the bell tower. 

The Franklin County clock’s inner mechanisms rest on an enamel stand. The two gears on the left are wound twice a week to keep the 1885 clock powered. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

In a cramped space shaped like a laundry chute, the primary steel and brass mechanisms of the clock rest on a green enamel stand connected to a pulley system. A spool of steel cord runs from the stand through a window in the wall leading to a shaft where about 5,000 pounds of lead weight slowly descends throughout the week, powering the clock.

Peter Rioux, a clock restorer based in Winterport, has worked on Franklin County’s tower clock in the past and described how it runs without any electricity.

Basically, it’s the falling weight that drives these gears and on the time side, you have an escapement,” Rioux said in a phone interview. “The escapement, what it does is it releases the power at an even rate and that’s what provides timekeeping for the town, and they just use gears to get the gear ratio that you need for the hand.” 

The bell and Howard tower clock at the Franklin County courthouse in Farmington is powered by a weight system. About 5,000 pounds of lead weights on a pulley system slowly descend throughout the week, maintaining the clock’s gears, levers and pendulum. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

According to the Farmington Historical Society’s Franklin Chronicle archives, the tower clock was installed by the Boston-based Howard Clock Co. on Oct. 7, 1885. Funds for the clock and bell were raised over the summer through Bell Bazars, hosted by the Ladies of Farmington. These fairs raised $913.80 which would amount to more than $24,000 today.

The bell was cast by the original Meneely Bell Foundry in Troy, New York, and the year 1885 is engraved and still visible on its waist.  On Nov. 5, 1885, the bell reverberated throughout the Farmington landscape for the first time.

As the bell tolled above me 10 times on Dec. 30, 2020, I watched the century-old gears turn at different rates, a brass fan spin and a lever release to pull the steel cord responsible for that echo haunting my sleepless nights. A newfound appreciation was budding for this machine that preceded me and may very well outlive me.

Rioux said that with continued maintenance, the Franklin County tower clock easily has another 100 years of life.

“There are tower clocks that still exist today that were built four to 500 years ago,” he said. 

While there may be a way to silence the bell or disconnect it completely from the clock’s weight system, Palmer thinks this would degrade the significance of the tower clock.

The Franklin County bell was cast in 1885 by the Meneely Bell Foundry based out of Troy, New York. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“For historical purposes and in my opinion, if one is going then you should have them both,” Palmer said.

For Frank Underkuffler, who worked at the courthouse for 31 years as the county’s civil attorney, the tower clock and its accompanying ringing bell represents the health of the community.

“Every time that I drive into Farmington … as long as the clock is still running, that tells me that it’s taking the temperature of the town, it’s measuring the town not only financially but also spiritually,” Underkuffler said in a phone interview. “It tells me that everytime I hear it bong the hour and it’s running on time and I can see the clock face because it’s not faded, to me, it’s telling that the town is healthy financially and spiritually. To me, it’s a representation of those things.” 

Underkuffler said the tower clock not only requires money for maintenance, but a devotion from county residents to continue that maintenance.

Palmer can testify to that devotion as he is quick to receive emails and phone calls from residents when the clock is a few minutes ahead or behind. This requires an extra trip to the bell tower to correct the ever-swinging pendulum’s momentum.

The clock’s brass parts have a tendency to slow down in cold winter temperatures, Palmer said while he latched a hand crank onto one of the gears to correct a two-minute delay.

Palmer also receives comments from individuals complaining about the ringing bell when they find out that he is in charge of maintenance at the courthouse. He assumes they’re unaware of the complexity of the Howard clock, much like I was, when they ask, “can’t you shut that off?”

Other community members such as Paul Mills regard the tower clock as an emblem to the county.

It’s got character and character isn’t something you necessarily see when you go out on the outskirts of town where you see all of the franchises,” Mills said.

The bell also helps both Mills and Underkuffler, who use the hourly ringing to keep track of time when they’re out jogging at night or skiing in Flint Woods.

Even Yetter regards the bell with fondness as it stirs up memories of when her sons were children.

“I remember we used to have a swimming pool in our backyard and often in the afternoon I’d be out there with the kids and the bell would ring four times,” Yetter said. “And my son Will would say, ‘oh it’s the four o’clock jump!’ and then he would jump into the swimming pool and that became a tradition in our family.”  

As a new Franklin County resident, I don’t have years to look back on to associate the tower clock with past memories. However, I now know why the bell tolls and who maintains the daily ringing that nudges me forward into time.

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