First cotton was grown by small farmers all over the world, from India to Mexico to Togo to the Sudan. Then came the carding machine and the spinning jenny and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and global trade was never the same again.
Soon cotton mills were established beside rivers all over New England, to take advantage of their abundant water power.
In 1823 the Merrimack Manufacturing Company built its first mill along the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. More buildings followed. By 1884, it was the largest company in the city, based on the number of employees, the amount of cloth produced, and the size of the mill’s chimneys. On the factory floor there was a sign posted: “No person can be employed in the company whose known habits are or shall be dissolute, indolent, dishonest, or intemperate, or who habitually absent themselves from public worship or violate the Sabbath.”*
When it shut down in 1957 MMC was “the oldest integrated cotton textile operation still extant in the U.S.”
By the middle of the twentieth century most of the textile mills in New England had moved south in order to access cheaper labor. But some remained. In the late 1940’s or early 1950’s my grandfather and a group of investors bought the Merrimack mills, planning to manufacture velveteen and corduroy. That is the short answer to the question of how hundreds of pages of handwritten Merrimack company records from the early 19th century, and dozens of five- foot spools of colored corduroy and velveteen, and a tall oak clock with “Merrimack Mfg. Co. Lowell” written on its face and endlessly displaying midnight (or noon), all ended up in the basement of our house, called The Orchard.
For most of my life, all I knew of Merrimack was the velveteen. There appeared to be an endless supply of it, in jewel colors. My grandmother sewed for me a princess dress of emerald green, with a lace collar and a bow in the back. Then there was the royal purple gown with a matching bolero jacket and tiny pearls sewn onto the cuffs. There was also a teal skirt and a ruby red hooded cape, with black satin ribbon edging. It goes without saying that once my sister and I outgrew these elegant garments, my mother labeled them and stored them in the attic. Years later I had a daughter of my own and someone remembered the Merrimack velveteen dresses and so they were brought out for Reine to wear. Her princess period was brief, but she was appropriately dressed throughout. According to my uncle’s History of the Lehner Family, which is essentially a history of the machinery used in producing textiles and processing cotton waste, and has very little print space wasted on actual people, “velveteen is where all the individual rows are cut so that there are no wales between the rows of fiber” (as distinct from corduroy).
In the first decade of the 21st century we started the process of cleaning out the basement at the Orchard, and so I found the Merrimack records that had been stashed in a tall double-door painted wood cabinet half a century ago, and left alone. There were piles of loose papers and also a journal kept by the treasurer and superintendents, containing inventories, accounts, and a list of girls who would be discharged if they dared to attend a public dance for a second time. Financial records listed orders, costs, purchasing and sales. Other pages recorded all the coal used in the mill, as well as the mean temperature in the Carding, Spinning and Weaving rooms. The average wage in the Number 2 Spinning department was $1.78.
Eventually, we gave all these papers to the Textile History Museum in Lowell.
No, not all. I kept one document with the “Catalogue of Girls who have left the Merrimack Mills irregularly since February 13, 1834”. At the top of the page the “Ring leaders” are named: Hannah Barbour, Hannah Barker Dolly Willey, Ellen Carney, Elizabeth Carney and Sarah Rowan. There are dozens more girls listed: carders, spinners and weavers. I can only imagine them – hard-working and spirited, and seeking something better than subservience. I treasure this document, as in some way honoring the bravery of these girls who chafed against their patronizing employers and their bleak working conditions. Those girls, the two Hannahs, Dolly, Ellen, Elizabeth and Sarah, dared to stand up for themselves.
When my mother came here to live with us and we had a moving van bring her furniture to New York, it occurred to me that the old clock did not have to remain silent for another century. So it was trucked here, with its heavy lead weights and brass pendulum in separate boxes: its first time ever out of the fine state of Massachusetts.
Of course we knew nothing about old clocks or clock repair, so I looked in the phone book and found Franklin Clocks in White Plains. I called and spoke with Jonathan and we made an appointment for him to come and see the clock the next day at 2 pm.
That evening the phone rang at 10 p.m. It is a well-known fact among the cognoscenti that CSB and I are early-to-bed sleepyheads, so when the phone rings at such an hour my mind instantly plunges down the rabbit hole of panic: a child, a grandchild, my mother in distress?? I answered with trepidation.
“Is this a good time?” said a voice.
“Who is this?” I said.
“It’s Jonathan. I am right around the corner and I could come see the clock.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late,” I said. “Don’t we have an appointment tomorrow?”
The next afternoon Jonathan arrived. He marched into the front hall, wearing a headlamp over his backwards baseball cap. Directly he opened up the clock.
“Hello,” I said. “Did you have any trouble finding the house?”
“What have you done with this?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” I said. “That is, we just brought it here and I am hoping it will be able to tell time again.”
Then Jonathan proceeded to extract the weights that I had carefully stored in the bottom of the clock case, and attach them to the pulleys. This required me to squat down and support each weight while he fiddled with the attachment. I should tell you that clock weights are much heavier than I imagined. Then he attached the pendulum. I was delighted that the parts of the clock were once again in their proper places. But of course nothing was moving. Jonathan opened the hatches on both sides of the clock, and aided by his headlamp as well as a flashlight which he held in his teeth, he did mysterious things to the inner workings. I noticed that the shaft of his flashlight was wrapped with duct tape and covered in teeth marks. After a long while of this, the minute hand started moving slightly and we heard an unmistakable ticking.
“That’s great,” I said.
“Mahmoud needs to work on this. You need Mahmoud,” Jonathan said. “Can you bring it to the shop?”
I said that we could, and we would. Jonathan implied that Mahmoud and only Mahmoud could repair and revive the clock. Then he asked me how old our house was, and I told him. He noted some old black and white photographs that hang in our front hall.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to a grainy picture of several men standing in front of a log cabin in a snowy landscape.”
“That’s my husband’s great-grandfather. He was the Forestry Commissioner of the State of Maine.”
“I’m related to someone famous too,” Jonathan said.
“Oh,” I said. Had he misunderstood? Had I misspoken? I had not meant to imply that there was any fame involved in the Forestry Commission of Maine.
“Yes,” he said. “You would know him. You know –“ and by holding his hand flat at about shoulder level, he indicated a short stature.
“Napoleon?” I said. Not entirely seriously.
“That’s it. On my mother’s side. He was French, you know.”
“Yes, I did know,” I said.
“We had an old family house too,” he said. “My grandmother on the other side harbored John Brown and his men there.”
“In Harper’s Ferry?”
“You can see the house if you go there,” he said.
Jonathan imparted that if we delivered the clock to their shop in White Plains, Mahmoud would fix it and then they would return the clock to us. She showed me how to remove the weights and pendulum for safe transport.
It is two months later; the Merrimack clock has returned to our front hall. It was delivered by Mahmoud and Jonathan. Jonathan called from the road for directions, explaining that he has a lot of trouble seeing at night.
“Are you driving now?” I asked.
“I’m on Broadway going north. And I can’t see where to turn.”
I explained as best I could that he should drive – slowly and carefully – for another two hundred feet and then turn left. Thirty seconds later a station wagon pulled into our driveway, followed immediately by another station wagon. Jonathan stepped out of the first car, and Mahmoud merged from the second. Although I had hung up the phone at my end, Jonathan was still speaking indignantly about the difficulty of seeing at night. Mahmoud shook my hand and I almost fainted. He displayed that phenomenon more honored in the breach than the observance: a grip of iron. When he released them, my limp arthritic fingers emerged crushed and more misshapen than they already were. He smiled sheepishly. I wanted to say something witty about how strong fingers were a clockmaker’s friend, but such bon mots eluded me.
The back door of his car lifted, and I saw our clock recumbent inside Jonathan’s car, amidst a jumble of satchels and tools. I mentioned that my husband had just come home, in case they needed any help bringing the clock inside.
“I have a bad shoulder, so I shouldn’t lift anything,” Jonathan said. “Where is your husband?”
I located CSB, my husband, and like pallbearers, he and Mahmoud bore the clock up the five front steps and into the front hall.
For the next thirty minutes they installed the clock, attached the weights and pendulum, shimmed the case. Mahmoud adjusted, and then readjusted the winding mechanism. Jonathan wore his headlamp at full brightness.
Mahmoud gestured to Jonathan to turn off the headlamp when they were speaking, as it glared directly into his eyes. This appeared to confuse Jonathan. Mahmoud told me that his father had been a clockmaker in Lahore, as had his grandfather. In Pakistan they had worked on many fine clocks. Jonathan said that they serviced the clocks of many famous people in the area. Did I know Maria Carey? No, not personally. Well, Jonathan serviced her clock. Also Hillary Clinton’s.
“They call her Madame Secretary,” he said.
I must have looked blank. “Her people,” he explained. “Her helpers.”
Mahmoud showed me on his cellphone photographs he had taken of the inner workings of the clock, with the name of the clockmaker: Aaron Willard, Jr. Our man (1783-1864) was the son of Aaron Willard and nephew of Simon Willard, both well known clockmakers of the time. Mahmoud estimated that our factory clock was built in 1824.
Jonathan said, “His clocks are everywhere. One is in the Oval Office.”
I was of course pleased to hear that. “So this is something Obama and I have in common. In addition to our opinion on universal heath care.”
Jonathan peered through the hatch on the clock’s head. Then he turned back to Mahmoud to discuss the movement, who asked him again to turn off his headlamp.
I took notes while together they explained how to wind the clock, and how to adjust the time and how to silence the chime if we had guests that found the noise objectionable. I was – I still am - so besotted with the clock that I could not imagine any circumstances in which I would willingly silence it.
Jonathan examined the black and white photographs on the wall, again, and asked me who the people were, again. I told him about Forrest Colby, the Forestry Commissioner of Maine, but this time Jonathan did not allude to his imperial kinsman.
As they were packing up their tools to depart, Jonathan said there was something else I should know about Aaron Willard, Jr. I assured him I was eager to learn all I could about the man who had crafted this clock almost 200 years ago.
“Not him!” Jonathan said. He told us about a man from Weymouth who made twentieth century copies of Willard clocks that were almost as good as the old ones. But that wasn’t what was interesting about him. This man, Elmo someone, was a murderer who was eventually murdered himself. After he was arrested for murdering his wife, he kept making clocks, and signed them OOB, for Out On Bond.
“Weymouth is right near where you come from?” Jonathan said. I nodded. Apparently he remembered that I was from Hingham, which is indeed adjacent to Weymouth, Massachusetts. “I don’t suppose you ever knew him?”
“To my knowledge,” I said, “I don’t know any murderers.”
“That’s too bad,” Jonathan said, “Because his clocks are very valuable now. It was written up in Yankee magazine. Do you know Yankee magazine? I have a subscription.”
I said that although I knew of the magazine, I rarely read it.
“I’ll find out his name for you. O.O.B. Remember that. And then later his clocks had the initials M.C.I.P., for Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Plymouth. But he said it was for Made Case in Prison. Get it? OOB, then MCIP.”
“I won’t forget,” I said. It was time to go. I made sure Jonathan did not leave behind his duct- taped flashlight, and I did not shake Mahmoud’s hand again.
That evening I went online to the White House website where I learned that yes, there is an Aaron Willard clock at the White House, but it was made by Aaron the father, not the Junior, and it stands outside the family dining room. The clock in the Oval Office was made by John Seymour. Truman ordered that all the chimes on all the White House clocks be turned off, because they could not be made to chime together. That seems a shame. Also, it seems disturbing that a country that can drop an atomic bomb cannot manage to get all the clocks in the Presidential residence to chime in unison.
We were already asleep when the phone rang much later that evening. I answered with the usual mix of annoyance and terror.
“Elmer Stennes is his name.” It was, of course, Jonathan speaking. “I found the article in the Yankee magazine. I keep them catalogued, at my mother’s house. His name was Elmer Stennes. He stabbed his wife in 1968, but only spent about two years in prison. He was murdered in 1975. Probably by his son, but they could never prove it. His clocks are collectors’ items.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That is good to know.”
“Do you ever watch Antiques Roadshow?” Jonathan asked.
“We do,” I said. “And good night.”
I rolled over to share this news with CSB, but he was still asleep. The murderous clockmaker could wait. A few minutes later, the Merrimack clock chimed eleven times. One remaining piece of the machinery from the factory floor of Merrimack Manufacturing was still running smoothly, marking the hours.