Taking Up Time

HAMPTON FALLS – Every three days Pamela Fitzgerald tends to “Ellen.”

For those who have never visited Ellen, the trek can be tricky, but to Fitzgerald, the journey is second nature. After she opens a trap door above her head, Fitzgerald heaves herself up a ladder to a landing surrounded by insulation and dust motes before resuming the climb on a second ladder, which leads to the platform where Ellen lives.

Pamela Fitzgerald has been keeper of the Ellen T. Brown clock at Hampton Falls Baptist Church since Jan. 17 2006.

The 115-year-old, Ellen is accustomed to Fitzgerald’s routine, and Fitzgerald is attuned to Ellen’s every need.

Ellen T. Brown is the town of Hampton Falls’ Memorial Gift Clock, which resides at the top of the Hampton Falls Baptist Church. Pamela Fitzgerald is the woman who ensures the clock keeps ticking.

While some would consider winding the clock a chore, Fitzgerald doesn’t view the task as such.

“It’s not (a chore) if you take care of someone,” Fitzgerald said. “I take care of Ellen. I don’t say ‘I wind the clock.'”

Fitzgerald, who has lived in town for 41 years, assumed the position on Jan. 17, 2006, and has continued to wind the clock “three years in faith.”

Memorial gifts and ‘The White Spire’

Although there are some conflicting accounts, historical records uncovered by Assistant Director of the Lane Memorial Library Bill Teschek and Hampton history volunteer John M. Holman indicate Ellen T. Brown was born Ellen Theresa Knapp on June 23, 1833. On July 19, 1855, 22-year-old Ellen married 24-year-old John T. Brown, who worked as a merchant. Records indicate they both resided in Newburyport, Mass.

 A year after Ellen T. Brown’s death in 1893, her husband gave a tower clock to Hampton Falls in memory of his wife. The clock faces, visible just below the steeple of the Hampton Falls Baptist Church, do not bear standard analog clock numbers, but letters that, when read clockwise, spell the phrase: “Memorial Gift.”

“It’s a great love story,” Fitzgerald said.

John T. Brown also gifted similar clocks to Hampton and Newbury in honor of Ellen. The Hampton clock resided in the Odd Fellows Block building in Hampton until the building burned down on Jan. 27, 1990. The clock was saved, but is no longer on display.

The Memorial Clock, which was designed by the E. Howard Clock Company of Waltham, Mass., was one of the company’s No. 2 tower clocks, which were designed in two models for tower clocks with different size dials and bells.

John T. Brown’s donation to the town isn’t the only gift that was made in a loved one’s memory.

According Warren Brown’s “History of Hampton Falls,” the church’s bell, located a level above the platform that accommodates the clock, was presented to the church by the wife of John Dodge in his memory in 1892.

The clock and bell are also accompanied by the Hampton Falls Baptist Church steeple, which was built in 1859. According to Fitzgerald, the steeple was known as the “white spire because it was the first lit steeple in New England.”

In the days before trees obscured the view, Fitzgerald said men working on the salt marshes could see the steeple and view the time as they harvested hay. According to Fitzgerald, the clock face facing the marshes was purposely made larger for easy reading.

Taking care of Ellen

When she winds the clock so the mechanism regulating the time continues to run, Fitzgerald must crank the metal key between seven and 11 times. The mechanism, which operates the clock’s chimes, requires between 98 and 107 rigorous rotations.

As a warning to keep up the every-three-day routine, Fitzgerald doesn’t need to look much further than a wooden post adjacent to the clock, which bears a message from a resident who learned what happens when the clock is left unwound for a week or more.

Fitzgerald points out the message scratched into the post in pencil.

“Wayne Barker,” it reads, “247 winds.”

Pamela Fitzgerald has been keeper of the Ellen T. Brown clock at Hampton Falls Baptist Church since Jan. 17 2006.

Fitzgerald said she laughs to herself when she sees people around town jogging or bicycling.

“I can show them real exercise,” she said.

In addition to the strenuous process of repetitive winding, the room where the clock is kept can be stifling in warmer weather. Fitzgerald said she has developed “rippling muscles” from her work at the top of the church. According to Fitzgerald, the mechanism was “definitely intended for a man’s body.”

Although many have tended to the clock over the years, including Francis Ferreira Jr., Wayne Barker, Charlie Akerman, Harold Follansbee, David Burditt, Bernie Mark and Gene Heal, Fitzgerald said to her knowledge, she is the first female to assume full-time clock-winding responsibility.

Evidence of the town’s past clock winders can be viewed on the walls of the clock room. Habitual, first-time and one-time clock winders have inscribed their names on the wood of the original clock box, which lines the walls of the space where the Ellen T. Brown clock is kept.

Fitzgerald credits Hampton Falls’ strong culture of service and dedicated volunteers for taking the time to preserve the clock and keep the time running. In particular, Fitzgerald said Ferreira has been “very good and very faithful.” Fitzgerald said Ferreira “does a lot for this town and never wants credit.”

“He is the example I follow,” she added.

In addition to individual volunteers, the town has worked to maintain the clock over the years. According to town reports from 2004 and 2005, voters approved a total of $12,000 that was used to reconstruct the clock’s faces.

“The clock is quite a gift,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m glad the town has kept it up.”

 At some point, Fitzgerald admitted, she would love if the town would look into purchasing an “auto wind.”

For the time being, Fitzgerald intends to keep winding the clock until another volunteer decides to take over. According to Fitzgerald, education is the first step in preserving pride in Hampton Falls’ historical resources, one of which is the Ellen T. Brown memorial clock.

“We need to continue to take care of what our forefathers gave us,” she said. “It’s a gift.

“When you are given a gift you don’t put it in the attic, you put it on display and take care of it.”

Originally published in the Hampton Union/Secoastonline June 9, 2009.

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