Simon Willard Monument


Simon Willard (1753-1848) is considered one of the finest clock makers and inventors in American history. His tall clocks were made by hand and placed in “Roxbury cases.” His more compact timepieces, commonly known as "banjo clocks," were prized possessions when new. Today, Simon Willard clocks and timepieces, examples of the leading precision technology of its time, are coveted by museums and collectors alike.

Simon Willard was raised on a farm in Grafton where he and three of his brothers, Benjamin, Aaron and Ephraim became clock makers. Simon was apprenticed at the age of thirteen to clockmaker Mr. Morris in Grafton. During the Revolution, he served in the Grafton Militia Company under Captain Aaron Kimball and was a “Minuteman” who responded to the Lexington alarm. In 1775, he married Hannah Willard, his first cousin, who died in childbirth the next year. His second wife was Mary Bird Leeds (1763-1823), with whom he had eleven children.

Willard and his brother Aaron Willard moved to Roxbury in 1780 to a small wood framed house at 2196 Roxbury (now Washington) Street, a prime location for his business. As a clockmaker and an ingenious inventor, he patented a clock jack in 1784 that was used for roasting meat by rotation. In 1802 his “Willard Timepiece” was patented, and in 1819 his patent for an alarm clock was recorded; he also invented the machinery for the revolving lights of lighthouses.

However, his skill as a handmaker of clocks was unrivaled and led to his being appointed Keeper of the Clocks at Harvard College, a post he held for 50 years. He also received commissions for a clock in the United States Capitol, as well as one at the University of Virginia, gallery clocks for the Roxbury Meetinghouse and the Second Church in Dorchester, and for numerous turret clocks throughout New England. He retired in 1839 after seventy years. By that time, his name had become synonymous with high quality timepieces. He died at the grand old age of 95—his obituary in the Boston Daily Advertiser declared: “Mr. Willard, after his long dealings with Time, has now left him for eternity. Peace to his blameless and honest memory!”

Willard was also related to other interesting Bostonians. At the front center of the base of the Willard monument is the signature of Alpheus Cary, Boston’s leading monument maker at the time, who made this beautiful monument in the Gothic Revival style. Willard’s son-in-law Isaac Cary, a well-known and respected bank note engraver, was Alpheus’ brother. The Cary brothers’ father (Alpheus Sr.) had also fought in the Revolutionary War, so the Willard and Cary families might have had a long acquaintance dating from the late eighteenth century.

After a brief career as a schoolteacher, Alpheus Cary turned to stonecutting and had a long and prolific career as a monument maker. He seems to have been sort of a “stonecutter to the stars,” since he designed and executed the monuments for many prominent Bostonians, and exported his work as well. Cary stones are often signed, which helps to identify it. To date, over 300 Cary-signed monuments have been identified all over the United States, as well as a number in Nova Scotia. Forest Hills Cemetery has a number of examples of his work (keep an eye out for his signature, usually on the front of a stone).

Cary was also involved in Boston civic and political life; he held office as a ward official and was one of the leading members of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, an organization that promoted the highest standards of quality and workmanship in the trades. In later life, Cary also published a book of epitaphs, a compilation of his favorite sayings. These ranged from ancient Greece to Shakespeare to contemporary poets—proving that nineteenth century monument makers were often more than “just” stonecutters. These men were generally well educated, literate, and highly respected professionals whose business just happened to be creating elegant and fashionable monuments. Often, like Cary, they also provided things like mantelpieces and architectural elements for home decoration.

As you leave the Simon Willard lot, you might consider how the Willard and Chubbuck lots seem to have a kind of dialogue with each other. Simon Willard’s genius as an inventor and clockmaker made the work of later specialists and machinists like Chubbuck possible. Perhaps the proximity of Simon Willard factored into Stillman Chubbuck’s decision when he purchased his lot?

Willard's brothers were also clockmakers; if you would like to learn more about the Willard family and their clocks, visit the Willard House Museum in Grafton, MA.

The next stop takes you to a Civil War cap.