by Wally Kroeker
Of all the goods produced by Mennonite businesses in Russia,
only the clock endures as an economic artifact of its era.
WINNIPEG, Man. -- They started coming in 1874, from the steppes
of Russia to the central plains of the United States and Canada.
By the time the tide of immigration subsided in the 1920s, some
40,000 Mennonites had crossed the Atlantic.
Hundreds lugged a particularly precious cargo -- a wall clock
with bulky pendulum and heavy brass weights. Many were secured
in wooden hope chests or wicker baskets. Some were swaddled in
blankets on laps, never out of sight as they moved from Russian
wagons to seagoing vessels, pitching and yawing across the stormy
Atlantic, to riverboats and trains that would slice through the
frontier to sodbuster homesteads on the plains of Kansas or Manitoba.
Of all the output generated by Mennonite business activity
in Russia, the clock stands out as an economic artifact, marking
much more than the strides of time.
Who were the craftsmen who put a clock in every home? There
were names like Lepp, Hamm, Mandtler and Hildebrand. But the
one that started it all and endured the longest was Kroeger.
Mention that name to Mennonite history buffs and eyes light up.
Ahh, the clockmaker.
Today, decades after the Kroeger company closed its doors,
Russian Mennonite clocks are prized as heirlooms and sought after
Locate one in a Mennonite museum and you'll be struck by its
primitive simplicity -- a large metal wall clock with long brass
pendulum and driven by brass weights on a string. No frills;
no fancy cabinet or glass case. Just a well-crafted clock for
simple Mennonite farmsteads of the 18th and 19th centuries. Plenty
good for folk who measured life in seasons rather than hours.
From his home in a tree-lined Winnipeg neighborhood, Arthur
Kroeger holds forth about horology, clock repair, Mennonite identity
and a family business of generations past. Spry, lucid and good-humored,
he is well into retirement. He is the grandson of the last Kroeger
clockmaker in Russia, and the last one with a passion for clocks.
His hobby these days is writing it all down for future generations.
In 1803 Kroeger's ancestor, the master clockmaker Johann Krueger,
emigrated from Prussia to the Chortitza Colony in Russia where
he changed his name to Kroeger, perhaps to differentiate himself
from other branches of the clan. The Mennonites had begun settling
in that area of Russia in 1789. By the time he arrived the region
was well established, with sufficient economic rigor to support
a clock business.
Along with his skill, Kroeger brought his tools and raw material
to resume his trade. He would in time face competition from other
Mennonite clockmakers. But he and his descendants would dominate.
Clockmaking was a good business at that time,
says Arthur Kroeger. The surrounding farm communities prospered.
Other Mennonite colonies had been established, and the Kroegers
supplied them all with clocks.
The clocks had a reputation for being well-made and inexpensive.
But that doesnt mean they were cheap, says Kroeger.
He digs out a Russian advertisement from 1905. A basic model
is listed at 15 rubles.
Remember, he cautions, that the average
worker earned only a ruble a day, so a clock cost two weeks salary.
As people became more affluent theyd trade in their
one-handed clock for a new model with two hands and a bell train
that clanged on the hour. These could cost up to 50 rubles.
Eventually the market became saturated, and modernity set
in. By the 1900s business began to dwindle. Other clockmakers
re-invented themselves, using their mechanical skills to produce
threshing machines, horse rakes and reapers.
David Kroeger, Arthur Kroeger's grandfather, kept producing
clocks, though he would eventually give it up and turn to making
two-cycle engines for agriculture. Another relative, also named
Johann Kroeger, repaired clocks until 1938, but no new clocks
were made after 1930. Nearly 200 years of clockmaking by
the Krueger/Kroeger family in Poland, Prussia and the Ukraine
came to an end, says Kroeger.
Arthur Kroeger, himself a native of Russia, emigrated to Canada
via Germany in 1949. A teacher initially, he got work in a metal
shop when he came to Winnipeg and later moved into drafting and
engineering. He spent 37 years working as a technician, first
for iron companies and then for Manitoba Hydro.
In Canada he met the Mennonite industrialist J.J. Klassen
who had worked for Kroeger's grandfather in Russia.
He knew there were quite a few Kroeger clocks in Canada,
and told me I should get involved with clocks, because people
would be coming to me for repairs and restoration. He was right.
One day when a relative brought him a clock, Kroeger took
it apart and cleaned it, and that became his first restoration
While he claims to have no entrepreneurial instincts (too
insecure), he did have a knack for the mechanical side.
I gradually got into it. I started to subscribe to the
National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin.
They had a lot of articles and pointers about how to fix clocks.
I bought books and got myself some machinery, including a metal
He also began restoring the decorative faceplates, the only
concession to flair on the Russian Mennonite clocks. Some of
the first models were adorned with biblical scenes, or colorful
tulips depicting Anabaptisms Dutch background. Later the
Kroegers would use roses to represent their village of Rosenthal
-- the valley of roses.
Part of the simplicity of the clocks was that their faceplates
were exposed, not encased in wood and glass. That made
them vulnerable to getting dirty, especially on the farms,
In many immigrant homes, well-meaning homemakers would diligently
clean their clocks with soap and detergent, not the greatest
thing for the paint, which was homemade to begin with. And
being over a hundred years old, the paint would crack off, especially
here on the prairies where we have a very dry climate,
Restorations have kept Kroeger busy. Over the years he has
done about 80 of them. Ive got clocks around the
clock, he says.
For Kroeger, clocks are not only a rewarding hobby but also
a treasured link with his past. As with many Russian Mennonites,
it is a past filled with tragedy. The Kroeger family suffered
greatly under the Bolsheviks. Kroegers grandfather David,
the last Kroeger to make a living at clocks, was beaten to death
Kroegers father worked with clocks but didnt make
a profession of it. He learned the trade as a child. When the
Kroeger children came home from school theyd work in the
shop for an hour or two, making clock parts before they could
go out and play. It was kind of a compulsory apprenticeship,
In 1990 a clock came into Kroegers Winnipeg shop for
repair. When he examined the mechanism he made a startling discovery.
Inside were scratched the initials of his father, who would have
been 16 when he worked on this particular clock. He died in a
Soviet concentration camp in 1942.
What helped spell the end of the Kroeger clock dynasty was
the products simple sturdiness.
They made their clocks too good, says Kroeger
of his forebears. The market became saturated, and there
was no obsolescence.
The new Soviet era, meanwhile, had no room for private enterprise,
and electrification didnt help. The electric clock
finished off the mechanical clock business, says Kroeger.
The Kroegers might have prolonged the life of their company
by adapting to the times and diversifying into different models
with fancy cases. But they were Mennonites who still valued simplicity.
They had a fear of becoming too worldly, he says.
Kroegers research suggests that Mennonite clockmakers
in Russia manufactured some 10,000 to 12,000 clocks in a hundred-year
period. About 80 percent of them were made by Kroegers.
How many still exist? Kroeger estimates there are still a
couple of hundred clocks in homes in Canada, U.S. and Central
and South America. More may still exist in parts of the former
Ask him what theyre worth today and he smiles mischievously.
He doesnt like to speculate. Collectors dont want
him to disrupt the market. Besides, much of a clocks value
is in the eye of the beholder.
Lets just say some of them in top condition have
fetched a good price, he says.
With the possible exception of the family hope chest, the
clock was the leading Mennonite export from Russia.
For Mennonite immigrants enduring poverty and hardship in their
new land, the clock gave a sense of connectedness with their
past. It reminded them of a time when they were still prosperous.
Kroeger tells the story of an elderly woman in Germany. When
still in Russia her family had been forced to move a lot, but
they were always able to take their clock with them. Then the
clock had fallen silent and needed repair. Now the woman was
old and blind, and hoped someone would come to fix her clock.
Before she died she wanted to hear it one more time. Not many
businesses today can boast a product with such mystique.
You look at it every day, you have to wind it every
day, it becomes part of the family, says Kroeger.
When the father would ceremoniously get up to wind the
clock it was a sure sign for visitors to leave. The routine of
winding the clock at the same time every day created a bond with
a machine that was always in motion.
For new immigrants on the plains, the reassuring tick-tock
was like a mechanical heartbeat. I am at home, it
seemed to say.
The old pendulum clock on Kroegers wall reaches the
top of the hour and interrupts him with a sharp, metallic bong.
Kroeger pauses to listen as the sequence plays out. His grandfather
would have heard the same bong, from the same clock, when he
made it a hundred years ago.
Its a good sound,"says Kroeger, as
he gazes wistfully into the distance, pondering the incremental
passage of time.
1) A clockmaking dynasty
The skill of clockmaking grew out of blacksmithing. Clockmakers,
who had to know mathematics, metallurgy and precision engineering,
were the master mechanics of their time.
Mennonite clockmaking dates back almost to the beginning
of the Anabaptist movement. Hutterites made clocks for church
towers as early as 1572. By the 1700s a dynasty of
Mennonite clockmakers had grown up in southwest Germany. These
skills were dispersed as the Mennonites migrated -- some to the
eastern U.S. and others to the new colonies in Russia.
The long pendulum wall clock was invented in the Netherlands
by the famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1656. All
Mennonite clockmakers in Russia made this type of clock.
When Johann Kroeger migrated to the Chortitza colony in
the early 1800s, he became the first Mennonite clockmaker in
Russia. The Kroegers made clocks for four generations thereafter.
Others, like Lepp, Hamm and Hildebrand, came later, and lasted
only one generation.
For a time Mennonite clockmaking in the Danzig area had
been an underground industry. Guilds of major trades did not
permit newcomers to work, especially if they were despised Anabaptists
(as Mennonites were also known). Only guild members were allowed
to mark their products with their names. When the Kroeger clockmakers
moved to Russia they continued the tradition of not marking their
clocks, though there were some exceptions.
If a clock has no markings at all it most likely
will be a Kroeger, says Arthur Kroeger.
Marauding anarchists, led by the infamous Nestor Makhno,
destroyed many Kroeger clocks. When they plundered Mennonite
villages the clock became a favorite target because they mistook
its burnished metal for gold. Theyd seize a clock, gallop
out of the village and later cast it aside after ripping out
the weights and chains.
One clock is known as the Nestor Makhno clock. The brutal
bandit was known to take over a village and make himself at home
in the most prosperous house. From there he would lecture village
leaders on how life would now proceed under the revolution. On
one occasion a Kroeger clock bonged while Makhno was in mid-speech.
The interruption startled him and in fury he tore the clock from
the wall and trampled on it.
When he left, the family collected the pieces. Years later
Arthur Kroeger was called upon to create a duplicate faceplate.
The damaged original was donated to the Mennonite Heritage Center
in Winnipeg, where it still bears the dents of Nestor Makhnos
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July 1999