Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clocks tell dramatic stories

Mennonite history tied to distribution of sturdy Kroegers

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WINKLER -- One clock was secreted from Russia during the Second World War on the back of a 12-year-old boy, hauled across Poland and Germany, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Paraguay, and finally to Winnipeg.

Another clock was hidden inside feather bedding and when the Russian border guard sliced through the material with his bayonet in search of hidden goods, he somehow missed the pendulum clock.

"The distribution of these clocks follows the distribution of Mennonites," explained Arthur Kroeger, 81, who restores the ancient clocks that range from one to two centuries old.

And they're still ticking.

They are often called Mennonite or Russian wall clocks, but their real name is Kroeger clocks. Patriarch Johann Kroeger started making the time devices in 1804 in the town of Rosental in Russian-controlled Ukraine.

The family business lasted six generations before the Russian Revolution ended it. Communists forced the last clockmaker, Peter Kroeger, to shut his factory because business had to be government-controlled. When Kroeger tried to make clocks from his house, Communists cut off his supply of materials like brass and steel. The last clock was made in 1929.

There are about 100 Kroeger clocks in Manitoba homes, said Arthur, a direct descendant of the clock-making Kroeger family. Many people value the clocks as precious heirlooms.

Mennonites first immigrated to Manitoba from Germany and Russia in the 1870s. A second wave arrived in the 1920s and later, escaping from then Communist-ruled Russia and Ukraine.

Kroeger clocks are famous for their durability due to craftsmanship and the solid materials that went into them, making for a very heavy instrument by today's standards.

It took a full month's salary to purchase one and they were considered a vital tool to get people to school and church on time.

The clocks are activated by the force of gravity. A weight (1.1 kilograms of lead encased in brass) is suspended to the clock mechanism with a string or brass chain. The clocks must be wound every 30 hours. To wind it, one simply pulls the weight to the top again.

Clocks originated in the 13th century, manufactured by Italian and German monks, Arthur said. The pendulum clock was invented in 1656.

"The pendulum was like the computerization of clocks. It brought much greater accuracy."

Alice Hurd of Winnipeg recently gave a 130-year-old Kroeger clock to the City of Winkler. The clock was owned by German farmer Valentine Winkler, after whom the town is named. The city is named after Winkler because he is the former landowner of the land where the city is located.

Hurd said donating the clock was the wish of her late husband Donald Winkler Hurd, the grandson of Valentine Winkler. Valentine Winkler served as agriculture minister (1915-20) under Manitoba premier Tobias Norris.

The clock is mounted in the city's council chamber. Winkler Mayor Neil Schmidt said the clock keeps fairly accurate time, but some councillors are annoyed by its loud tick-tock.

The Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach also has a display of Kroeger clocks.

Kroeger clocks are known to still exist in Canada, the United States, Middle and South America, Germany, Ukraine and Siberia.

Today, the clocks are typically worth a few thousand dollars. Alice Hurd said she never considered asking money for the clock.

Kroeger doesn't like to talk prices either.

"I'm not interested in seeing these clocks speculated in," he said.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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