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The Home of the Banjo Clock
Bob Brooke


Nestled in the rolling hills of Central Massachusetts, Willard House is one of Grafton's oldest buildings, constructed by Joseph Willard in the early 18th century in what was then known as the Indian settlement of Hassanamisco. Four of Joseph's grandsons - Benjamin, Simon, Ephraim and Aaron Willard---would become America's preeminent 19th-century clockmakers, making their first clocks in 1766 in their small Grafton workshop. In 1802, Simon Willard obtained a patent for his Improved Timepiece, or "banjo" clock. Today, clock historians consider the banjo clock to be one of the most significant styles of early 19th century American timepieces.

Founded by Dr. Roger and Imogene Robinson in 1969, and opened to the public in 1971, the museum features world's largest collection of Willard clocks. The collection is displayed in period room settings in the 1718 Joseph Willard homestead, the 1766 Benjamin Willard Clock Manufactory and three modern galleries, and includes over 90 Willard clocks.

The museum collection also includes Willard family portraits and furnishings, Colonial, Federal and Empire period furniture, antique Oriental rugs, 19th-century women's costumes,18th-century American and English pewter, Victorian dolls and doll furniture, military and hunting weapons, Nipmuc Indian artifacts, and original documents signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The couple spent over 40 years of their lives dedicated to the preservation of this historic home and to telling the important story of the Willard family clock makers.

Who was Simon Willard?
Simon Willard was the creator of the timepiece that came to be known as the banjo clock. He was the most celebrated of a family of Massachusetts clock makers who designed and produced brass-movement clocks between 1765 and 1850.

About 1780 Willard moved from Grafton, where he had been apprenticed to a clock maker, and settled in Roxbury, near Boston, where he continued studies with his brother Benjamin. Simon Willard worked in Roxbury until his retirement in 1839. He catered to a wealthy clientele, including Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned a clock for the University of Virginia. Willard made various types of clocks but specialized in pieces for churches, halls, and galleries, though he focused on producing accurate, simple movements.

The Banjo Clock
During his early career in Grafton, Simon worked to produce a compact and affordable wall clock. The results of this effort were the rare Grafton Wall Clocks often referred to as Willard experimentals. On February 8, 1802, Willard patented an eight-day pendulum clock housed in a case having a round top portion bearing the dial, an elongated central portion, and a rectangular base. Though the shape of the upper part of the case inspired the term banjo clock, he called it called it his “Improved Patent Timepiece.”

It was the first American eight-day wall clock, the first American wall clock to have the pendulum suspended in front of the weight in the case, and the first American wall clock to have the weight attached to a pulley. He made the brass clock mechanism smaller, therefore saving brass which was in scarce supply in the early 19th century. Its shape was an imitation of the traditional wheel barometers. Simon built his first Patent Timepieces by hand, to order. By 1805 the clockworks, and standard cases, could be produced in quantity, reducing the cost of the clock.

Its small size meant a much lower price of 30 dollars, although this was still a large amount of money for the average family. Nonetheless, Simon's Patent Timepiece revolutionized the clock industry, becoming the most popular clock in the United States.

Though Simon patented his Timepiece later in 1802, most of his competitors dodged it, reaping much money with their own versions of the banjo clock. However, Simon never filed a case against such usage. After 1802, in Simon's workshop, the smaller banjo and shelf clocks were the bread and butter models while Simon pursued his other great projects. Eventually, Willard's workshop manufactured 4,000 banjo and shelf clocks.

How did the collection get started?
Dr. Robinson began collecting Willard clocks in 1955, with a brass-dial Simon Willard eight-day clock. His clocks formed the basis for the museum's collection, now known as the Roger Robinson Clock Collection. Imogene's vision for the museum was shown through the lovingly curated displays of period furniture, needlework, and Willard family treasures.

Located among the rolling farmlands adjacent to the Tuft University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine just off Route 30 in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

The Willard House offers guided tours, which last approximately an hour (or more, depending how many questions you have). Tours depart when there are enough participants. The last tour of the day begins at 3:00pm.

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