Guilford’s rich clock making history gave America the gift of time.
One of Connecticut’s most notable historical achievements has been the practice of clock making. The craft reached particular heights in the town of Guilford, where astonishing, enduring, and elegant advancements in clock making arose.
In 1726, Ebenezer Parmelee was commissioned to build the first tower clock in Connecticut for the Guilford church. Prior to his work, most clocks produced in America were for domestic use and had to be imported from England. “Parmelee is remembered for the tall clocks that bear his name, as well as the very early Guilford tower clock,” says Phillip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield and expert on early American clocks. “His son, Ebenezer Jr., also worked as a clockmaker, as did other family members.”
There was a huge need for public clocks during this period, as many citizens of early America found domestic clocks prohibitively expensive. “Before the American Revolution, very few families could afford to own a clock at home,” says Zea. “Public time was the only way to accurately mark the passage of the hours. Consequently, public or tower clocks were an important source of information and civic pride.”
The Guilford tower clock was a particularly notable achievement. No other state possessed such an awe-inspiring example of the craft: it bore a hand-wrought iron frame, brass wheels, and a massive pendulum. “The public clocks that Ebenezer Sr. made for Guilford and Milford remain a tribute to his reputation,” Zea says.
Parmelee is also celebrated due to his influence on successive generations of clockmakers. “Sometimes, significance is really a function of objects that survive with a signature or provenance, especially when multiple generations of craftsmen are involved,” says Zea. “That is the case of the Parmelee family of Guilford, who worked as clockmakers and silversmiths over a couple generations.”
Due to Parmelee’s influence, the state of Connecticut would soon become home to a wealth of pioneering clockmakers. “American clock making is primarily a Connecticut story, especially during the nineteenth century with the innovations of Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, Riley Whiting, and Joseph Ives,” Zea notes. “Their designs focused on making available at low cost clocks that most people [otherwise] could not afford.”
It is, however, the enduring work of Ebenezer Parmelee and his Guilford spire clock that sets him apart to this day. Zea says, “The contributions of the Parmelee family to Connecticut clock making before the revolution is elevated by the survival of their work in both public and private timekeeping.”