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Bristol's timekeeper

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Posted on January 3, 2011 |
By Tamara Hilmes



web_clock3472.jpg
BRISTOL RESIDENT VICTORIA Grace has been winding the Holley Hall clock twice a week for 20 years. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

BRISTOL — Bristol resident Victoria Grace has the best view in town.

For more than 20 years now, Grace has climbed up the series of staircases and rickety wooden ladders to the tip-top of Holley Hall twice a week to wind the clock that was installed by the E. Howard Company of Boston in 1884.

Grace inherited the job from her brother-in-law, Roland Benedict, years ago after her sister turned it down. Benedict’s father before him had wound the clock.

“I don’t know anything else about it but how to wind it,” Grace said during a recent trip to the clock tower, attaching the wooden crank to the rod that controls the hour hand and turning it several times. The gears rotated and the large, Vermont marble weight rose several inches within its wooden casing.

According to Grace, it’s just like a giant grandfather clock.

By turning the gears, Grace tightens the cables attached to the weights that keep the hands of the clock ticking.

“I turn this,” she said, putting her hands on the crank, “and it moves the hands on the clock.”

According to Grace, the clock can run for about a week without being tightened, which means that Grace, the only person who knows exactly how to wind the clock, can never stray far from Bristol. If ever she travels out of town, she makes sure she’s back in time to keep the clock running.

She did get a small vacation this past year, though, when the clock was shut down for a month during the renovations of the historic building the center of Bristol village.

But apart from that one month, Grace’s maintenance schedule has operated like clockwork.

Grace, who works at the Champlain Farms gas station and convenience store next door to Holley Hall, typically winds the clock after her shift has ended, usually at 11 p.m. or midnight.

Using a flashlight, she climbs up into the tower and opens a series of trap doors and closes them behind her. And despite the winding, dark passageways, she never gets spooked.

“All of my jobs have been night jobs, and I’ve been doing this for years, so I’m used to it,” she said.

But after all that cranking, she said she still hasn’t gained any muscle.

“But I’ve lost hearing from it,” she joked. Normally, Grace makes sure she has earplugs to drown out the high-pitched screeching and clicking that accompanies the winding of the minute-hand gear.

The 58-year-old is unsure at this point who will take over her reign as the Holley Hall clock winder. Not one of her five children, all of whom have moved away from Bristol, is interested. Nor are any of her grandchildren, she said.

“It’s a pain,” she said. “If you live out of town, you have to come back into town to do it.”

She, herself, lived in Colchester at one point in time, and had to drive to Bristol twice a week to fulfill her clock-winding duties.

But what may seem like a rather thankless task does have its perks.

On the Fourth of July, Grace has a perfect view of the fireworks.

“The news station actually comes up here to film them,” she said.

And on a regular basis, Grace enjoys a great view of downtown Bristol, the town green and the houses and mountains that sprawl out in the distance.

“I’ve always been tempted to ring the bell 13 times on Halloween,” she said, climbing out onto the top of the tower and standing next to the old bell that rings on the hour, every hour.

“But I’d never actually do it. I’d probably get in trouble,” she laughed.

On the way back down, she cautioned against letting the door to the gear room close.

“I got trapped in here once,” she said. “I had to find something to pry the door back up so that I could get down.”

Though she’s experienced very few mishaps in all her days winding the clock, every once in awhile Grace comes up to find things a bit out of order.

“One time I came up and saw that some of the teeth were missing from one of the gears,” she said, gesturing toward the large bronze gear with its blackened ridges. “We don’t know how it happened, but we had to shut the clock down until it was fixed.”

Whenever the clock needs a touch-up or a repair, Pat Boyden from the Green Mountain Clock Shop in Essex comes down.

Otherwise, Grace has a little can of oil that she can use to keep the gears rotating smoothly. But she hardly ever needs it.

“The clock is about four minutes off,” she said. “It likes to run slow.”

Tamara Hilmes is at tamarah@addisonindependent.com.

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