The public is invited to see the last original dial from the Pennell Institute clock Sept. 26. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

Gray resident Audrey Burns remembers as a child knowing it was time to stop playing with her friends and head home for dinner when the clock on the 80-foot tower at Pennell Institute struck 5.

“It’s always been there,” said Burns, who recently celebrated 70 years since her graduation from the former high school. “It’s a town relic.”

The clock tower at the former Pennell Institute “represents the town” for some alumni. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

Keeping alive the memories of what she calls a “happy time” at the school — now the housing of Gray municipal offices — has been the work of  Burns’ fellow Pennell alumni, who have preserved the institute’s sole surviving clock face.

“It’s representative of their time here,” said Gray Community Development Director Doug Webster. “They feel very attached to the building.”

The public is invited to see the artifact – one of four original dials on the building’s clock purchased by founder Henry Pennell in the 1880s – at 4 p.m. Sept. 26. The ceremony hosted by Gray Historical Society will also honor Pennell alumnus Don Whitney, who died last year after leading the effort to save and showcase the dial.

“Don was the ringleader,” Webster said.

Whitney was responsible for raising the $10,000 needed to mount the clock dial on the wall and hook it up to the original clock, an effort which began about a year and a half ago, Webster said. Whitney was not alive to see the dial affixed at Gray Town Hall this past winter, and the pandemic postponed any kind of ceremony in remembrance of his contributions until now, Webster said.

The Pennell Institute opened as the first official high school in Gray in 1886, said Galen Morrison, president of the Gray Historical Society. It closed in 1962, a year after Whitney graduated. The building then saw many uses until 2008, when voters approved allocating$2.4 million to renovate and convert it into Gray Town Hall.

The clock, which Pennell purchased from the E. Howard Clock Company in the 1880s, has never been replaced. It has been running continuously since 1887 and has ticked over 1.5 billion times, according to the historical society.

“It’s built like a tank,” Webster said.

Rick Balzer, of Balzer Family Clock Works in Freeport, said the clock uses technology that is “very, very, very old.”

“The weight drives the gearing, which drives the shaft, which drives the hands,” Balzer said.

That type of mechanism has been used in clockworks for about 800 years, he said. 

When the clock was restored in 1992 by Balzer and his wife, Linda, the four wooden, 8-foot dials on the sides of the clock tower were taken down and replaced, Webster said. The original north-facing dial – the only one in decent shape – was preserved. Webster said he believes carpenter and craftsman James Hall kept the dial in his barn from the time of the clock restoration until Whitney had the idea to bring it back to Pennell.

The original north dial now hangs on a wall on the second floor at Gray Town Hall, hooked up to the clock system that powers the four dials now affixed on the clock tower. Next to the original dial on the wall is a plaque dedicated to Whitney, as well as a sign noting the importance of the Pennell Alumni Association in raising the funds to complete the restoration of the dial and the clock.

“Without their support over the decades, it is likely that this historical community landmark would have been destroyed,” the sign reads.

“It’s a bit of history that will not be lost,” said Morrison of the dial’s significance.

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