The Willey Clocktower

In Question Mark, Ohio, at the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets, stands a familiar sight: a beautiful though derelict clocktower, constructed by Reginald Willey, industrialist and town founder.

The story of the clocktower is the story of the Willey family and its relevance to the town of Question Mark.

The Beginnings

The Willey family has a long history in Question Mark. Reginald Willey founded Willey Envelope in 1851 and expanded the family business throughout the 19th-century. In 1884, several years before his death, Willey constructed an 82-foot tower with four illuminated clocks on each side. As fascinated as Willey was with the concept of time, his hope was that the clocktower would provide town residents a moment to pause and to consider the fleeting joys of the ordinary world, before hurrying on their way.

Reginald Willey inspecting one of the clock faces.

In 1921, a fire destroyed much of Question Mark, and only the clocktower was spared. In 1934, another blaze consumed parts of town and once again the clocktower was one of the few landmarks that remained standing.

The 1921 fire that decimated Question Mark.

The Fountain

Few residents know that next to the clocktower is a public water fountain dedicated to Rebecca Willey. Born in 1857, Rebecca Dupree married Reginald Willey Jr. and became a strong proponent for immigrant’s and women’s rights. She was the first woman elected to the Question Mark School Board in 1885 and later helped her husband found the town’s first public library. She also started the Children’s Music and Painting Circle to ensure that all children knew how to play music and paint as she believed both were essential skills to the development of an informed citizenry.

The Rebecca Willey Memorial Fountain.

The water fountain was built after the death of Rebecca Willey in 1936. It was said to be the one place in town Willey heir and Rebecca Willey’s son Reginald Jr. Jr. would most often visit as a place for quiet contemplation as he took on the enormous responsibility of running the Willey Envelope factory during the Great Depression and working to ensure a future for the town of Question Mark.

Reginald Jr. and Rebecca visit the Clocktower.

Jr. Jr. Takes Over

In 1948, a powerful tornado made its way through town and split the clocktower in two. Willey Jr. Jr. used his vast wealth and resources to reconstruct the tower using many of the original elements, while also introducing several new kinds of gears and additional machinery meant to last throughout the next century. When the completely refurbished clocktower was inaugurated in 1953, Reginald Willey Jr. Jr. praised the vision of his grandfather while also asking the people of Question Mark to look to the future, “where all the important answers always live.”

Reginald Jr. Jr. surveys the damage of the clocktower after the 1948 tornado

In addition to updating the clockworks, Willey Jr. Jr. also added a musical sequence, which would ring out during the daylight hours and which many citizens of that era fondly remember. It was said each day began and ended in Question Mark with the clocktower’s short, pleasant melody.

A Willey Split

After the death of Reginald Willey Jr. Jr. in 1961, the clocktower slowly began to fall into disrepair. The controversy surrounding Willey’s final will and the ownership of the envelope factory led to a lengthy legal dispute between sons Royce and Reuben Willey. As the brothers’ legal ensnarement grew, the clocks in the clocktower were said to cease to function, one by one.

In 1979, after a Ohio Supreme Court Ruling that left the ownership of the Willey Envelope factory in the hands of older brother Royce Willey, the two brothers found themselves in the middle of a very public confrontation, right in the shadow of the clocktower their father had worked to rebuild. Several onlookers described Royce and Reuben Willey engaged in a series of insults, which led to some lengthy verbal sparring, and then eventually, fisticuffs, leaving the elder brother holding his eye and cursing his younger brother openly. According to eyewitnesses, the dustup seemed to be over the disappearance of a missing watch which Royce claimed Reuben had stolen. One witness said that Royce warned Reuben: “You will never see a penny from our family’s fortune: you’re a wastrel and a layabout and a discredit to the Willey name. Our grandfather tried to build something here and all you can think to do is use it for your personal gain. You are exactly like Lawrence Ames and all his followers. Is this all Question Mark means to you? If so, I pity you, brother. Truly. I fear from this moment forward, you will carry our family’s name like a curse.”

The Modern Era

The moment seemed to mark a shift in Question Mark itself. From a town brimming with progress and optimism, to one divided by power and greed, the final clock in the clocktower was said to stop functioning that day, the musical gears giving one final melancholy chime.

After the public altercation, Reuben and his family left Question Mark and settled in the Baltimore area, where he died penniless, leaving his wife and two children in dire financial troubles. Royce continued to run the factory until the 1980s when he was forced to sell the family’s ownership of the envelope factory after several ill-conceived business deals. Without the stewardship of the Willey family, the clocktower stopped functioning altogether. The music sequence became a halting, screeching alarm and then fell silent. Eventually, by 1991, the clocks in the clocktower would only ever sporadically work, and were sometimes known to run backwards.

Graffiti covers an inner chamber of the clocktower after years of neglect.

In the 2000s, juvenile delinquents were known to loiter in the upper room of the clocktower. During an reelection campaign in 2017, Mayor Elizabeth Zisk promised to return the clocktower to its stately glory, but unfortunately, that promise was quickly forgotten as soon as the campaign ended.

The Willey clocktower and accompanying fountain are certainly very interesting places to visit but, unfortunately, most citizens seem to know little of the history of either. But it is in the spirit of Question Mark that the tower silently keeps its watch over the town, continuing to hold its wondrous, unknowable secrets.