Important Jamaica Plain clocks
Jamaica Plain old-timers will remember that only two clocks really mattered in our youth. One was at "the geographic center of the United States," outside of the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank at 696 Centre St. (The real center of the United States is actually 1,650 miles away at Lebanon, Kansas.) The other important clock was in the lobby of the Jakie (Jamaica) Theatre at Hyde Square. The lobby clock, inside the theatre, is where you would meet a date who could afford her own ticket.
The E. Howard Clock Company
The Five Cents Savings Bank clock at 696 Centre St. was manufactured by the E. Howard Clock Company. The company was established in 1842 by Edward Howard, who had been an apprentice to the well-known clockmaker, Aaron Willard, Jr., of Roxbury, Mass. With his partner, David Davis, Edward Howard also made fine watches and sewing machines. The Bank clock was installed in 1930. It is known as a "two-dial street clock," because it has dials on opposite faces, both driven by the same clockworks. An identical Howard two-dial street clock was located on Chelsea Street in East Boston.
Our clock is weight driven with a weight, about the size of a cinder block, hanging down into the heavy, cast-iron base. The clock has to be rewound every seven days, to raise the weight back up to the starting position to repeat its slow gravitational descent. That seven-day drop drives the original clock mechanism in the base of the clock. A T-shaped winding key is inserted in the base of the clock to rewind the weight. Although the clock is electrified for lighting, the clock’s driving mechanism is still mechanical. It is wound and lubricated by a volunteer, Jeffrey Ferris, the owner of Ferris Wheels bike shop at 66 South St., Jamaica Plain. That location is the former site of Sam Klass's shoe shop, described elsewhere in these Jamaica Plain Historical Society pages.
The clock in the Unitarian-Universalist Church (the First Church) tower at 6 Eliot St. is also a Howard clock. There is also a non-working clock in the Hope Central Church tower (formerly Central Congregational church) on Seaverns Ave. Its maker is unknown. The E. Howard Clock Company went through several owners in the early 20th century and reinvented itself several times thereafter.
Volunteerism at a new level
Jeffrey Ferris came to Jamaica Plain from California in 1977. Six years later he opened his thriving bike shop, Ferris Wheels, serving customers from Jamaica Plain and the greater Boston area. He became an expert clock maintenance man the old fashioned way: he got drafted. It started when Warren Benson, then manager of the Five Cents Savings Bank, and Dr. Charles McDevitt, a Faulkner Hospital podiatrist, found some antique string-lights in the bank’s basement. (Charlie McDevitt worked with us at C. B. Rogers drugstore while attending college in the early 1950s.) Those old lights found their way to the tower of the First Church on Eliot Street. David Graf, who maintained the First Church’s clock, enlisted Jeffrey to help with the lights and soon he, Jeffrey, was taking care of that old Howard clock in the church tower.
Around 2006, Michael Reiskind, then president of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, and John Dalzell, an architect, obtained a grant for half the cost of repairing/restoring the Five Cents Bank clock. Citizens Bank provided the other half of the restoration money. Electric Time Company, at 97 West St. in Medfield, Mass., a specialist in the field, was hired for the restoration project. Soon after the restoration, Jeffrey Ferris stepped forward and volunteered to do the weekly winding and "as needed" maintenance and lubrication of the restored clock. It takes only a few minutes to rewind the clock through a locked panel in its base. Another access panel, opposite the former, is held by screws and is removed for maintenance of the clock’s gear works. These panels are below the faces of the clock. The lubricants used are light-weight synthetic oils.
Jeffrey says the clock keeps good time, losing less than a minute a week. When necessary, the time can be adjusted from the lower access panels. The clock does currently need attention to seal against winter rains which can get in and freeze in the clockwork gears and other parts.
A 1950s Snapshot in a 2019 Painting
In the painting, the clanging streetcar attached to the overhead wires is headed for the Jamaica Plain Loop, opposite Bob’s Spa at 128 South St. Mr. Sabadini’s Hood Milk truck (built by the Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company, or Divco) would be headed for a Brewer Street delivery. The Boston Globe’s dark green delivery trucks with gold lettering got the news of the world to readers long before television news was in everyone’s living room. Mamigons, at 712 Centre St. (now the Galway House), served the first serious pizza in JP, while the bowling alleys upstairs loudly reported the candlepin action that we pin-boys knew so well! Setting pins there was a step up financially and health-wise from our home alleys at the Arborway Bowlaway, downstairs, at the corner of South and Boynton Streets. Seven cents a string and heavy padding in the pits reduced the danger of getting whacked by flying candlepins or balls at Centre Street. Five cents and mayhem in the pits was pin-boy life at Boynton Street.
Another memory of the period would be the first ball-point pen called the Reynold’s Rocket. In 1948 it sold at S.S. Kresge’s for $12.50 ($132 in 2018 dollars!). It dropped considerably once the rich kids got theirs. Kresge’s was a few doors down from the bank, at 684 Centre St., heading toward Seaverns Avenue. Farther on, Woolworth’s was located at 674 Centre St., at the corner of Seaverns Avenue.
S.S. Kresge morphed into Kmart in 1977, and later became Sears Holding Company. Kresge’s was also famous for snappy hot dogs and cokes at its soda fountain. (There is a question of whether nearby Woolworth’s also had a soda fountain.) Kresge’s also featured live baby chicks in the window at Easter time. Big Little Books were my favorite purchases at Kresge’s. Their inventory was typical of “Five and Tens” everywhere. Kresge’s founder, Sebastian Spering Kresge, was worth the 2018 equivalent of $5 billion when he died in 1966.
New Life for the Clock
The most deeply embedded memory of all is the Five Cents Bank clock. And, while it failed to meet the status of a National Landmark, because of substantial modifications in 1956, it is still a monument to a great growing-up in Jamaica Plain. The Electric Time Company of Medfield restored the clock again in 2008. They hold the archives of the Howard Clock Company and information on over 7500 tower and street clocks they’ve built or restored all over the world, including at Antarctica. The president of the company, Thomas Erb, provided technical information about our clock and the history of the Electric Time Company. The Company was an offshoot of the Telechron Company of Ashland, Mass., and was spun off as Electric Time Company in South Natick. Telechron was later sold to General Electric. In 1986 Electric Time relocated to Medfield. Electric Time Company designs, manufactures and services large clocks of all kinds throughout the world. And finally, Citizens Bank acquired the 140-year-old Boston Five Cents Savings Bank in 1993. Citizens was formerly owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is now part of a publicly-traded company, Citizens Financial Group. Citizens Bank still pays the light bill for the clock and we say thank you for that.
And So . . .
Thanks to a dedicated volunteer, an expert clock company out in Medfield, Citizens Bank and our Jamaica Plain Historical Society, the clock that measured so many wonderful minutes of our 1950s lives in Jamaica Plain, keeps ticking along. It still is the center of the United States for many of us.
Special thanks to:
Brandie Morris and Thomas Erb of the Electric Time Co., Medfield, Mass.
Jeffrey Ferris of Ferris Wheels bike shop at 66 South St., Jamaica Plain.
Michael Reiskind of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.
Kathy Griffin for editorial assistance
By Peter O’Brien