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Camilla Care

Time is on their side at the Willard House & Clock Museum

Vaseline 4 weeks ago

GRAFTON — For three generations, the Cheney family has been fascinated by the passage of time.

Robert C. Cheney followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who both served as official “timekeepers” for the city of Worcester and spent his 35-year career as a clockmaker, dealer, curator and consultant for more than 50 museums across the country . His face may also be familiar to those who watch PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” as Cheney has made several appearances for more than a decade.

“My father was the official timekeeper for Worcester, just like his father before him,” Cheney said. ‘Part of that job was to ensure that all the timepieces in the city were running correctly, down to the second. He was also responsible for guarding the clock in the Town Hall clock tower, effectively the ‘Big Ben of Worcester’.

Cheney said the clock high in the tower had to be wound twice a week, and when he was older, he and his brother started helping their father.

In the 1960s, Cheney’s father took the boys to the Willard House in North Grafton in an attempt to save the building and the original clockmaking shop founded by the Willard family. He originally wanted to have the property restored and physically moved to Old Sturbridge Village.

The house was built in the early 18th century by Joseph Willard and remains one of the oldest buildings in Grafton. Joseph’s grandsons Benjamin, Simon, Ephraim, and Aaron would all eventually have a hand in creating some of the first clocks in the Willard collection.

In the small workshop, Simon created what he called his ‘improved timepiece’, now known as a ‘banjo clock’ because of its shape.

In 1781, Simon moved his workshop and clock business to Roxbury, where an abundance of artists, cabinetmakers, metalworkers and painters were available to help create the beautiful clocks. Although Willard’s footprint in Roxbury no longer exists, his original workshop in North Grafton remains locked in time.

“I remember coming across this room,” Cheney said, standing in the center of the original 1718 workshop. “I was chasing a chicken and my dad was measuring some paperwork he had filled out to save this place. Then I fell through the floor and into the earthen cellar. I will never forget it.’

On stage right, Dr. Roger and Imogene Robinson. The couple crossed paths with Cheney’s father and they too shared a passion for saving the historic home and its importance to the early Industrial Revolution. The Robinsons restored the house and opened it to the public in 1971 as the Willard House & Clock Museum, housing the world’s largest collection of Willard clocks.

The museum features the original workshop, with old, original tools lining the tables and the faint “tick-tock” of dozens of bells echoing through the hallways. Cheney now sits on the museum’s board and has been instrumental in keeping the clockwork of history ticking within the museum’s walls.

During his 35-year career, Cheney says, he has been self-employed, restoring and trading clocks around the world. It was during this time that his path crossed with Charles Grichar, who worked in the oil industry and developed a love for Willard clocks.

“I like to say I made him a millionaire,” he said with a chuckle. “Of course he was a billionaire; these clocks are not cheap.’

Over time, the friendship between the two grew stronger, as did their love for Willard clocks. Thanks to Grichar, the museum will now receive a gift worth more than $15 million to transform the space into a world-class destination.

“This is going to double our footprint,” said Robert Gierschick, the museum’s director of development. “We are currently working with a Worcester architect to expand the space so that we can not only accommodate around 90 additional bells, but also store them.”

The plans also include a small hall, a horological library and an educational space for lectures and workshops. Before the museum can receive the gift, it must raise $3 million for an endowment.

Walking through the small ‘house museum’, with the minute hands all turning from 12:59 to 1:00, visitors are met with a chime, only to be extinguished once again by the constant ticking of time.

‘These pieces are each their own time capsule. Especially these clocks with cylinders in them,” Gierschick said as he opened a large clock case. ‘Look here. From the late 18th century it was filled with sand, gravel and rocks.’

“It’s not just the rocks,” added Sarah Mullen, administrative assistant at the Willard House. “Take this music clock for example. It shows popular music between 1780 and 1800, music that now only appears in these works.”

As for the incoming collection, Mullen couldn’t contain her excitement.

“I don’t even know what pieces are coming here, but there is one with an inscription in the name of a Mr. Nathaniel GB Dexter, Simon Willard’s cousin. I just love the little bits of history and the family ties. It’s amazing. “

It will take several years for the new collection and expansion to be completed, as the museum is just now entering the design and planning phases, but as Cheney said, “What’s a little more time?”

Willard clocks can be found across the country in a number of iconic places, including the base of the Franzoni statue in Congress, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Worcester Art Museum and the Supreme Court, with each tick marking the ravages of time. withstands time.

Thanks to Evelyn for suggesting the Willard House & Clock Museum for this edition of Worcester County Wonders.

T&G engagement editor Sarah Barnacle teaches Central Mass. by exploring some of the best places to go and things to do in Worcester County. If you have an idea or suggestion, please email [email protected].