History in Towns: Grafton, Massachusetts (From our Archives)

William Nathaniel Banks, Photography by Paul Rocheleau Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, Fall 2010 |

Fig. 1. The common in Grafton, Massachusetts, was laid out in 1728, seven years before the town was incorporated. The Greek revival Evangelical Congregational Church was built in 1833. The bandstand dates from the 1930s, when scenes for the movie Ah, Wilderness! were filmed in Grafton.

The town of Grafton, in east central Massachusetts, effectively encapsulates the history of New England. There are countless historical tokens: ceramic shards left by the migratory Nipmuc tribe before the European intrusion; the farmhouse built in 1718 by Joseph Willard, the first white settler in what is now Grafton; the muster role of Grafton men who marched to Concord on April 19, 1775, when news of the first skirmish of the Revolution reached the village; the splendid houses built in the nineteenth century by successful manufacturers; the marble cenotaph inscribed with the names of Grafton men who died in the Civil War; and, from the twentieth century, the bandstand at the center of the common, a memento of the scenes filmed in Grafton for the movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness! If the umbrageous common with its three stately churches and ancient inn seems frozen in time, and the surrounding hills and meadows appear to be timeless, the ticking of the eighty clocks in the Willard House and Clock Museum reminds the visitor of the inexorable passage of time.

Fig. 2. This “improved timepiece” (often called a banjo clock) by Grafton native Simon Willard (1753–1848) was made in Roxbury, Massachusetts, c. 1810. John Doggett (1780–1857), a master carver, sculpted and gilded the pine eagle.

In November 1631 John Eliot (1604–1690), a Puritan minister from Hertfordshire, arrived in Boston with twenty-three barrels of books. He settled in nearby Roxbury and preached there for the remainder of his life. In addition to performing his ministerial duties Eliot served obsessively as a missionary; he was motivated by, in his words “pity for the poor Indian.”1 Aware that sermons in English were incomprehensible to the natives, he learned the Nipmucs’ guttural Algonquian language; and, astonishingly, he translated the entire Bible into Algonquian and had it printed in Cambridge. In the 1650s and 1660s Eliot established in eastern Massachusetts fourteen “praying villages” of Indian converts, one of the most successful of which was Hassanamesit on Keith Hill in what is now Grafton. The approximately sixty inhabitants were farmers who kept cattle and swine and marketed apples from their orchards. Encouraged by Eliot, many of the Indians adopted English attire as well as Puritan manners and morals. Their code of laws prescribed, among other provisions, that “All men that wear long locks shall pay five shillings,” that “If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings,” and that “If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall pay five shillings.”2

Fig. 3. The parlor was added to the Joseph Willard house (now the Willard House and Clock Museum; see Fig. 6) in 1755. The early nineteenth-century desk and chair belonged to Simon Willard, who is shown at age thirty-seven in the portrait by an unknown artist. The tall clock was made by his brother Benjamin Willard (1743–1803) c. 1770.

In 1675 King Philip (c. 1639–1676), a Wampanoag sachem (chief), launched a guerilla attack on the colonists, killing hundreds and burning their villages. However loyal to the English many of the Christian converts may have been, King Philip’s War engendered indiscriminate mistrust of all the Indians, and despite John Eliot’s efforts, the praying villages were effectively annihilated. Many of the Hassanamesit villagers were sequestered on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where some of them died of exposure to the cold and starvation. After Philip was defeated and murdered in 1676 few of the Christian converts returned to Hassanamesit.

Fig. 4. The Warren Block (now called the Town Block), where town meetings were once held, and the Unitarian Church were both destroyed by fire in 1862 and rebuilt the following year.

In the decade after Joseph Willard built a one-room cottage at what is now North Grafton in 1718 (see Figs. 1–3), eight pioneer families acquired land from the Indians and settled nearby. In 1727 forty English investors, called the proprietors, negotiated a contract with the seven remaining Indian landowners to purchase seventy-five hundred acres for “the sum of 2,500 pounds, to be deposited in the hands of trustees…to receive and set out the same as interest…and said interest to be paid to the said Indian proprietors.”3 Unfortunately but perhaps predictably, because of an unrepaid loan to one of the trustees as well as unwise investments, the fund dissipated without providing substantive assistance to the Indians.

Fig. 5. The old burying ground with slate gravestones was laid out in 1737.

In April 1735 a petition to incorporate the new town was presented to the General Court of Massachusetts with a blank for Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682–1757) to insert a name. Belcher chose Grafton to honor his friend, Charles FitzRoy, second duke of Grafton, the son of an illegitimate son of Charles II. In 1730, five years before Grafton was incorporated, a meetinghouse with benches and nine boxlike pews was erected, and the following year a minister, Solomon Prentice (1705–1773), a graduate of Harvard College, was called to preach there. In 1734 Joseph Willard was chosen to serve on a committee of three to stake out a burying place, and in 1737 they reported that they had laid out one acre. The old burying ground with its parade of ancient slate stones (see Fig. 5) is on a knoll overlooking Lake Ripple. Many of the stones are decorated with winged angels or grimacing skulls, and some are remarkably informative. The stone marking the grave of Joseph Willard’s widow Martha Clarke, who lived to be a hundred, states that she died on June 3, 1794, “Having had a posterity of 12 children, 90 Grand children; and 226 Great Grandchildren, and 53 of the 5th Generation.” 

Fig. 6. Joseph Willard (1693–1774), the first white settler in what is now Grafton, built a one-room farmhouse there in 1718. Enlarged over the years, it was acquired in 1968 by Dr. Roger and Imogene Robinson, avid collectors of Willard clocks, who eventually established the property as the Willard House and Clock Museum.

Joseph and Martha Willard were the grandparents of the four Willard brothers who were the premier clockmakers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The oldest and most peripatetic of the four was Benjamin. He lived and practiced his trade in Connecticut at East Hartford and in Massachusetts at Lexington, Roxbury, and Worcester. Returning frequently to Grafton, he made tall clocks, most of them in cherry cases, in the shop adjoining the farmhouse his grandfather had built (see Fig. 3). While sojourning in York, Pennsylvania, Benjamin met his future wife, whose mother was mistress of the Golden Swan Inn. Although he was clearly improvident, having been jailed twice for debt, it was said that his bride rode horseback from York to Grafton in order to marry him. He died in September 1803 at an inn in Baltimore. However prodigal he may have been, he is notable for having taught the art of clockmaking to his younger, more productive, brothers in the Grafton shop.

Fig. 7. The Robinsons added the Simon Willard gallery in 1990. The tower clock at the end of the room was made in 1839 by Aaron Willard Jr. (1783–1864) for the Methodist Church in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The large gilded gallery clock on the left wall was made by his father, Aaron Willard (1757–1844), in 1809 for the Boylston Market, now demolished; Doggett made the case. The Simon Willard clock on the table is called a skeleton clock because there is no case and the movement is fully visible.

Simon Willard was the most inventive and arguably the most gifted of the clockmaking brothers. At the age of twelve he left the rural school he was attending to learn his trade, and he always gave Benjamin credit for his tutelage. In the early 1770s, in the Grafton shop, he made a number of tall clocks as well as wall and shelf clocks, most of them in mahogany cases. In November 1776 he married his first cousin Hannah Willard (1756–1777), and two months later a son was born. In less than a year both mother and son died in an epidemic, and shortly thereafter the stricken husband left Grafton to settle in Roxbury. In 1788 Simon married a widow, Mary Leeds (1763–1823), and in the Willard tradition of large families they had eleven children.

Fig. 8. The keeping room, the original room of Joseph Willard’s house, is furnished as it might have been in the early eighteenth century with a pine table and ladder-back chairs with rush seats. The pewter is American and English. The musket over the fireplace was made in 1710.

In 1802 Simon patented his popular “improved timepiece” (see Fig. 2), and he sold the elegant eight-day clocks for fifty dollars. Over the years he made three gallery clocks for the United States Capitol, one each for the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court. In 1827 he made a tower clock for Central College (now the University of Virginia), and Thomas Jefferson sent him his plan for the placement of the clock as well as a drawing of the Rotunda. In the 1820s both Jefferson and James Madison presented Simon with stylish walking sticks.4 Simon’s genius was mechanical, not financial. Although it is estimated that he had made over six thousand clocks and timepieces by the time he retired at eighty-nine, he was worth only five hundred dollars.

Fig. 9. William Brigham (1739–1833) built this handsome Federal house on Brigham Hill c. 1815. With its extensive gardens, it is now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Peter H. C. Williams.

Relatively little is known about the third of the Willard clockmaking brothers, Ephraim (b. 1755). Presumably Benjamin and Simon taught him the trade, which he practiced in Medford, Roxbury, and Boston. He is listed as a watchmaker in the New York City directories from 1825 to 1832, but there is no record of his whereabouts thereafter.

Fig. 10. One of the very few early nineteenth-century brick houses in Grafton stands on North Street. It is now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Fritz.

The youngest and most financially successful of the four brothers was Aaron. After serving an apprenticeship in Grafton, like Simon he moved to Roxbury and set up shop there in 1780. Then in 1793 he built a handsome Federal house on Washington Street in Boston where he lived for the rest of his life. Realizing he could make more money manufacturing clocks on a large scale, he obtained a license from the city of Boston to transform his carriage house into a workshop, and he attracted wood carvers, dial painters, and metal workers as well as clockmakers onto the premises. He eventually employed some thirty workmen to establish what was in effect a clock factory. When he retired in 1823 Aaron Willard Jr., one of his sons, took over the business. A skilled clockmaker, Aaron Jr. provided a turret clock and gallery clock for the Congregational Church in Grafton, his father’s hometown.

Fig. 11. This three-story Federal house of c. 1790   on North Street was acquired by Dr. and Mrs. John G. Koomey in 1965.

Another of the surprisingly informative stones in the old burying ground marks the grave of Solomon Prentice Jr. (1733–1747), a son of Grafton’s first minister. The epitaph inscribed on the slate declares that he “Died Oct.br 25th 1747 of wounds he Rec.d 2 Days before by ye Explosion of Gun-powder in Mr. Charles Brighams Well.” Charles Brigham (1700–1781), one of the forty proprietors who settled Grafton, had built a small house in 1728 on his farm on Brigham Hill. His son William had married Solomon’s sister Sarah Prentice (1744–1834), and the unfortunate Solomon was evidently killed helping his sister’s in-laws blast a well.

Fig. 12. Jonathan Warren (1799–1875) built a handsome Greek revival house on North Street in 1827. It is now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert McInnis.

In 1815 it was William Brigham who built the five-bay, two-story Federal house that dominates the hill (Fig. 9). The well-designed main entry features a leaded fanlight and sidelights flanked by pilasters supporting a full entablature. The east ell of William’s house is thought to be the early house built by his father.

Fig. 13. George Clapp (b. 1799), a master builder, designed and built this Greek revival house on North Street with an unusual two-story Doric colonnade on both the façade and the south side.

For the first decades of the nineteenth century Grafton was essentially an agrarian community. The historian Frederick Clifton Pierce wrote that “the soil is moist and strong, rich and very productive….The lands are naturally warm and not subject to frosts; and as they are high and rocky, they are well adapted to orcharding and all kinds of fruit trees.”5 The farmers’ houses were generally plain but substantial, many of them with center chimneys, while the more affluent built large houses in the Federal style, like the Brigham house, that were elegant without being pretentious. A fine example is a three-story house with a hipped roof on North Street built in the early 1790s (Fig. 11). The de­­­sign of the entrance doorway virtually duplicates that of the Brig­ham house. Especially pleasing is the contrasting treatment of the windows on the three stories. Only the third story is flush-boarded. The overall effect is understated and refined.

Fig. 14. In the 1870s a one-story house on South Street was transformed into an Italianate showplace by George F. Slocomb (1823–1881). It is now the home of Mrs. Robert Maynard.

Another house in the Federal style on North Street—built, according to tradition, in 1809—is one of the very few early nineteenth-century brick houses in Grafton (Fig. 10). The entrance doorway has an elliptical fanlight and a wooden surround set in an arched opening. The windows have wide wooden frames, and all the trim is painted white. The brick contributes a touch of urban style to the neighborhood.

Fig. 15. The impressive house in the Queen Anne style that dominates the south end of the common was built by George W. Fisher (1843–1900) in 1885. It is now owned and occupied by W. B. Smith Companies.

Although there were still many productive farms in Grafton through the nineteenth century, the principal businesses carried on in the town center were tanning and currying leather and manufacturing boots and shoes. As early as 1820 Jonathan Warren, a brilliant entrepreneur, launched a fifty-year career of leather currying and shoe manufacturing. For the rest of the century, as the leather business flourished in Grafton, more than a dozen fortunes were made there, and classical architecture seems to have appealed to the well-to-do manufacturers. In 1827 Warren built a handsome Greek revival house on North Street (Fig. 12). Six fluted Ionic columns support a tripartite architrave and massive pediment; the pediment window is flanked by scroll-like carved ornaments. The entrance door has a transom and sidelights with etched glass panes. The entire façade is flush-boarded. A classically inspired fence with cast-iron columns and palmettes encloses the front yard.

Fig. 16. The entrance hall of Fisher’s house is richly ornamented with a grand staircase and stained-glass windows.

In the 1830s Greek revival houses proliferated in Grafton. An unusual example on North Street was built by George Clapp, a master builder from Petersham, Massachusetts (Fig. 13). It is Grafton’s only example of a Greek revival structure with a three-bay façade and a two-story Doric colonnade on both the narrow façade and the longer south side. According to Frederick Pierce, Clapp “erected a large number of the best buildings;”6 and, indeed, features of his house are duplicated on Jonathan Warren’s house and several other Greek revival houses on North and South Streets.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century the manufacturers with a penchant for ostentation opted for more exotic architectural styles. In the 1870s George F. Slocomb, who inherited his father’s lucrative shoe manufactory, acquired a one-story house on South Street and remodeled it in the popular Italianate style (Fig. 14). Among its striking features are the overhanging eaves with ornamental brackets, a central pavilion with an oculus under the gable, and an extravagant application of quoins on the corners and on the pavilion. Certainly Slocomb created a showplace.

While the leather business remained the principal source of wealth in Grafton center, a number of textile mills were established in the surrounding countryside, where the Blackstone and Quinsigamond Rivers provided waterpower. In 1885 George W. Fisher, one of the most successful of the textile manufacturers, built a mansion in the Queen Anne style at the south end of the common (see Figs. 15, 16). The round tower with a conical roof, the second-story porches, and multiple gables animate the tremendous bulk of a very impressive dwelling.

Fig. 17. The Grafton Inn, built in 1805, is the oldest building on the common. The Civil War monument is inscribed with the names of the sixty Grafton men killed in the war.

Although there is less activity now than in the past, the common is still the omphalos of Grafton (Fig. 1). Townspeople worship in the three churches—Congregational, Unitarian and Baptist—and conduct business, dine, and shop at the old Grafton Inn (see Fig. 17) and the imposing buildings that line the north end of the common, the Wheeler Block and the Warren Block. Jonathan Warren built the eponymous Warren Block (now called the Town House) in the early 1850s and rebuilt it when it was destroyed by fire in 1862 (Fig. 4). Town meetings were once held in the vast space on the second floor of the block, and there were also dances, minstrel shows, and basketball games. The Congregational and Baptist churches, both built in the early 1830s, are fine examples of rural Greek revival, while the Unitarian Church, also demolished in the 1862 fire and rebuilt the following year, is an attractive composite of late Greek revival and Italianate features.

Fig. 18. A reservation of four-and-a-half acres on Brigham Hill Road belongs to the Nipmuc nation. It is the site of an annual celebration on the last Sunday in July.

Some two miles west of the common on Brigham Hill Road is a reservation of four-and-a-half acres that has always belonged to the Nipmuc nation (Fig. 18). In a tranquil glade there are a longhouse and an enclosure where annual celebrations are held. A visitor to this sacred place may conjure an epoch when the natives roamed freely over the hills and valleys and, unencumbered by clocks, measured time by the passage of the sun.

I am grateful to Cynthia Dias-Reid, director of the Willard House and Clock Museum, for her cooperation in the preparation of this article. The 1990s architectural survey of Grafton, sponsored by the Grafton Historical Society, was helpful; and the assistance of Linda M. Casey, director of the historical society, was invaluable.

  1 Quoted in Ola Elizabeth Winslow, John Eliot, Apostle to the Indians (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1968), p. 72.  2 Frederick Clifton Pierce, History of Grafton, Worcester County, Massachusetts (Worcester, Mass., 1879), pp. 20-21.  3 Ibid., p. 37.  4 The drawing and the walking sticks are now in the collection of the Willard House and Clock Museum.  5 Pierce, History of Grafton, p. 307.  6 Ibid., p. 399.

WILLIAM NATHANIEL BANKS writes and lectures widely about old towns and houses.