BIDDEFORD — The Lincoln Mill clock tower, which for years had sat rotting on the ground next to the building it once topped, was saved days before it was due to be chopped up and tossed in a dumpster. Five years later, a group of residents is again trying to save the iconic clock tower that once called thousands of workers to Biddeford’s textile mills.

“This is the third wave in the journey to save this clock,” said Louise Merriman, a member of the Biddeford Historical Society leading the charge to save and restore the tower. “We have to do it this time. It’s the last chance we have.”

Since 2014, the clock tower has languished on the ground in the middle of a mill district that is rapidly being rejuvenated. Residents trying to save the clock tower believe it will cost around $200,000 to restore it and bring the clock back to working condition. They plan to form a nonprofit to raise money for the restoration and envision the clock tower being installed in a park along the river walk to showcase the city’s history.

“It’s part of the genetic makeup of the city,” said Dan LeBlond, who has worked on the clock tower in the past and is helping with the renewed effort to save it. “The clock basically kept the tempo of time for an industrial community that was very vibrant.”

The unique octagonal clock tower was built around 1853 and moved to the top of the Lincoln Mill from a nearby building sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The tower clock, made by the E. Howard Co. of Boston between 1868 and 1872, was wound each week when the clock sat atop the mill. Many of the people who wound the clock carved their names in the walls of the clock room.

In the 1945 book “The Men and Times of the Pepperell,” author Dane Yorke described the ringing of the bell that once hung below the clock:

“The mellow-toned bell of the new mill rang six times daily. The first bell came at twenty-five minutes before sunrise; when the sun rose the mill had been at work for a quarter of an hour. The bell rang again to open and close a forty-five minute interval for breakfast; at noon it rang twice to open and close another forty-five minute spell for dinner. And its final peal was at closing time – sunset in summer or 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. in the winter.”

In 2007, the clock tower was removed from the top of the mill. Its bell and weather vane had already been removed and sold.

The octagonal clock tower once adorned the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It was really the heartbeat of the community for 140 years until it was chain-sawed down,” Merriman said.

For seven years, the clock tower rested mostly untouched on the ground next to the Lincoln Mill. Covered in twisting bittersweet vines and piles of pigeon droppings, the clock tower became an eyesore and point of contention among residents split on whether the tower should be removed or saved.

As the clock tower deteriorated, city officials took notice because its location violated the building code and caused a safety hazard. In 2014, the city got a court order that fined the mill owners $100 a day if it was not removed. Dumpsters were on-site to collect the sawed-up remains when George Collard, a Portland historian, stepped in to help save it.

Collard bought the clock tower for $1, then posted a $5,000 bond to ensure it would be removed. The City Council gave him extra time to arrange for the costly relocation and Collard teamed up with a group of high school students who produced a seven-minute video about the clock tower.

As the video drew attention to the plight of the clock tower, the Sam L. Cohen Foundation donated $10,000 to the cause. The local fundraising effort raised another $15,000. It cost nearly $20,000 to use a crane to move the clock tower to its current location on the edge of a parking lot on the Pepperell Mill Campus.

A second campaign to fund the restoration never materialized and, for the past five years, the clock tower has sat untouched behind a locked gate.

When Merriman saw its current condition, she knew something had to be done.

“We’re at a critical point right now,” she said. “It’s a tragedy we need to change the trajectory of. It really belongs to the community.”

Scott Joslin, chief operating officer of the Pepperell Mill Campus, said the clock tower will need to be moved from its current resting spot relatively soon to make space for equipment for a renovation project and allow for additional parking.

“We wouldn’t chop it up and make it go away, but we’d be happy to work with anyone to get it restored,” he said.

Collard is also eager to see the clock tower restored, starting with critical structural work. He has already restored most of the original clock pieces, which could be reinstalled. He also has one set of arms for the clock, which he could use to make replicas to replace the missing arms from the tower’s three other faces. The arms and numbers would be coated in gold leaf.

“It’s one of the most beautiful clock towers put on any of the early New England mills,” he said. “There’s no part of it that can’t be restored. It will be gorgeous.”

LeBlond believes the community will once again rally to save an important and iconic piece of the city’s history.

“It’s important because if you forget your history, you don’t know who you are,” he said.

filed under: