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Orwell selectman keeps town clock, local history alive and ticking (with slideshow)

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ORWELL — Every week Peter Young climbs the stairs to the choir loft in Orwell’s First Congregational Church, then throws open the door to the attic. The stairs grow progressively steeper as he climbs, creaking as he goes, until finally he stands in a small room filled with gears. There, working a crank that’s surprisingly heavy and stiff, Young winds the gears of the Orwell town clock, raising the sets of cannonball-like weights that drive the hands of the huge timepiece.

“Time waiteth for no man,” reads in the inscription on the 126-year-old clock, but if it weren’t for Young, time might very well stand still in Orwell.

That’s because this seventh-generation Orwell resident is charged with the task of keeping the town clock ticking — a charge that requires he make that climb to the clock tower once every seven days. The town selectman does this every week, without fail, to keep the three-faced clock overlooking the Orwell village ticking away right on time.

And he does it, frequently, with students from the Orwell Village School in tow. Those days, the trips up the church steeple are as much about keeping town history alive as they are about keeping the gold-plated clock hands spinning.

“The town has given me so much in my life, and I’m trying to give some back,” Young sys. “It’s important to have town history.”

On a sunny mid-morning in late April, it was business as usual for Young. His eighth-grade assistants, plucked from his wife, Barbara’s, classroom at the Orwell Village School, were Cody Bradish, 13, and Casey Fyles, 14, both of whom have lived in Orwell their whole lives.

The trip up to the steeple is riddled with tidbits of Orwellian history and church lore. On the church steps, Young points out the site of the old town meeting house, which predates the town hall and church. He told a story about a little feud that kicked up back when Orwell had two churches, both of which fought over rights to the meeting house’s old bell.

Inside, he indicates the church pews, which families in town each bought to fund the construction of the church. Looking up at the large chandelier overlooking the sanctuary, Young tells Bradish about how Bradish’s grandfather had converted the light fixture from kerosene to electricity.

Climbing up through the building, Young pauses at the famous Hook tracker organ, and later points to a few of the charred beams inside the steeple. He tells the two students about a fire at the church in the 1920s. A bolt of lightning ignited the steeple, and Orwell residents rallied to form a bucket brigade. They hauled water up to the church from a muddy puddle down by the road, and miraculously saved the church.

It turns out that Young’s own family history, in addition to town history, is written all over Orwell’s 1842 First Congregational Church.

It’s in the family name transcribed in an old, bowed pane of stained glass in the main body of the church, and in the church’s historic organ, which Young’s grandmother played every week for 60 years. It’s recalled by his own signature, scrawled in the steeple when Young was just 14 years old, and in his boyhood memory of toppling down the steps to that same steeple while visiting the church with his father.

“We haven’t been run out of town as horse thieves yet,” Young jokes.

Perhaps most of all, Young’s history is tied up in the town clock and church bell, both of which were donated by his relative Sally Young in 1883, and which Young’s father once tended when Young was a boy.

And for the students, the pinnacle of the trip is the stop in the clock tower that houses that clock, which was shipped north from E. Howard and Company in Boston.

The small room is taken up almost entirely by inside workings of the massive clock, which connect to the three faces on the outside of the steeple. To tweak the hands, which sometimes stick during wild weather shifts, Young has to precariously balance on a ladder to stick his arm and hand out of a small window in the face of the clock.

Over the course of the month, Orwell’s town clock loses about half a minute in time. Young snaps out his cell phone to check the time on the clock, and sets back the gears one minute to sync up the correct time.

Inside the clock tower, the gears click through each second. 

To wind the clock, Young begins cranking a large handle. It draws up a cable attached to a heavy wooden box that dangles far below. Over the next seven days, he explains to students, that cable will slowly unwind, which keeps the clock ticking. At the end of the week, without fail, someone needs to haul the weight back up again.

“You know how often once a week comes?” Young jokes, turning the crank on the clock. “It feels like every other day I’m up here winding it.”

He tells the students that a lot of these old clocks have been “changed over,” so that they run on electricity instead of the once-a-week hand cranks. He, for one, finds that unfortunate, lauding the old clock’s artistry and mechanics.

The students, one after the other, step up to try their hand at cranking the clock, and Young jokes that this, in fact, was his main motivation for the weekly tours: he gets to stand back and watch as the students throw themselves into the heavy work of winding the clock.

“Mr. Young must be jacked,” teases Bradish, after stepping away from the large gears. “You must have guns.”

Afterward, though, the students find they have earned the reward of adding their names to the mural on the wall. Bradish and Fyles sign their names in permanent marker on the inside walls of the clock tower alongside those of their classmates who’ve already made the trek up the steeple.

Their names are among hundreds left inside the steeple by Orwell residents and visitors alike who’ve each taken a turn winding the clock. Some are well over 100 years old.

The tour culminates in a trip up to the belfry to see the bell that Sally Young gave to the First Congregational Church. (The clock, on the other hand, she donated to the town.) Standing in the attic of the steeple, Young points out the hammer that the clock, downstairs, maneuvers to sound the hours.

To hear Young tell it, there’s a story in every corner of this building — and he’s happy to share them.

“That’s what makes Orwell special. We’ve got so much history here,” Young says. “It’s important to pass that on to the kids, to the new generation.”

Just after descending from the terrifying heights — and gorgeous views — the two students hurry back to school for lunch. Young’s wife, Barbara, drives by and affectionately calls out to “Old Man Time.”

Then, up high in the clock tower, the gears click away, and the clock strikes noon. Sally Young’s bell picks up its tune with 12 sonorous chimes.

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