Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two weeks ago we spotted an online ad placed by a Winnipegger in the market for vintage pencil sharpeners, of which he claimed to already possess in the neighborhood of 40.
Curious, we reached out to the person behind the blurb, crossing our fingers he would be interested in sitting down with us to discuss his unique pastime for a feature article in the Free Press.
"By all means," came the reply, so there we were a few days later, knocking on Murray Beilby’s back door, prepared to chat about everything from when the first pencil sharpener was invented (1847) to what the devices are called in Ireland (toppers) to whether he’s ever toured the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, located in Hocking Hills, Ohio, and home to 3,700-plus sharpeners.
But here’s the kicker; seconds after Beilby escorted us through his kitchen to a corner nook where his sharpeners are elegantly displayed, we immediately stopped in our tracks to inquire, "Uh, what’s going on in here, exactly?"
"Yeah," he said with a chuckle, "I was going to tell you about all this before you arrived but then at the last minute decided it’d be easier to let you see it for yourself."
"All this" is the 34-year-old father of one’s true collecting passion. Covering almost every square inch of wall space in his tidily furnished living room are dozens and dozens of hand-carved cuckoo clocks, every last one of which, for the benefit of our visit, was tick-tick-ticking and cuc-koo-koo-kooing to beat the band.
"I don’t usually have more than one or two going at the same time because the noise drives my girlfriend Ainsley crazy — she’s upstairs right now trying to study for her nursing exam — but since you were coming over I thought hey, what the heck."
For as long as he can remember, Beilby, a mechanic by trade, has been drawn to antiques. To prove his point, he pulls back a curtain to show off a window ledge populated by an assortment of multi-coloured glass hydro insulators he began amassing at age five while his kindergarten pals were busy scooping up hockey and baseball cards.
Aware Beilby was an "old soul," one of his cousins sold him a century-old cuckoo clock two years ago, a move that set the wheels in motion for his clock cache.
"I thought it was pretty cool so I put it on the wall where, for the longest time, it was the only clock I had in the whole house,’" he says, gesturing toward a wooden specimen that boasts a functioning paddlewheel along with a pair of dancing figurines dressed in traditional Bavarian garb.
"Months later, a friend of mine came over with a gentleman who was selling 12 cuckoo clocks as part of an estate sale. I bought the entire lot for pretty cheap and that’s what really got me going; not just collecting but also taking them apart, repairing the bells, working on the movements, everything."
A quick study, Beilby has since acquired an encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to cuckoo clocks. For instance, he can tell you the earliest ones date back to the 1730s and that Franz Anton Ketterer, a German-born clockmaker, was the person responsible for incorporating a cuckoo bird’s distinctive call into their design.
Also, he can instantly identify a one-day clock, which requires winding every 30 hours, from an eight-day clock based on their assortment of weights and pine cone-shaped pendulums.
"I’m thorough and I don’t really watch TV," he explains, talking loud enough to be heard over a clock that plays what we’re guessing is a sped-up rendition of Edelweiss, on the hour, every hour.
"I don’t have cable or internet at home… I can’t even remember what I did for fun, besides playing hockey, before clocks came along. They definitely take up most of my spare time, no pun intended."
The toughest part of being a horologist, the name given to those interested in the study of time measurement, isn’t laughing off the predictable cuckoo-equals-crazy jokes, it’s nailing down how old a particular clock is, says Beilby, who has also collected close to 200 pocket watches, mantle clocks and grandfather clocks.
The majority of the cuckoo clocks he’s purchased either in person or from the internet don’t come with any type of date stamp, leaving him to rely on clues such as whether it is key-wound versus spring-driven to ascertain approximately when it was built.
Cuckoo clocks that come with a night silencer — a mechanism that allows the owner to turn it down when they hit the hay — are relatively new, Beilby says. While he prefers clocks from the late 1800s and early 1900s, he does own a few that were manufactured as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s.
To date, two benefits have come from Beilby’s hobby. First off, he’s started a bit of a side biz, Lockman’s Clocks. For a nominal fee he happily repairs cuckoo clocks sent to him from coast to coast by people hoping he can bring a family heirloom back to life.
"I haven’t met a clock I wasn’t able to fix yet," he says with a hint of pride, adding he hopes to travel to Germany’s Black Forest region, where cuckoo clocks were born, sometime in the next two or three years.
Secondly, he and his daughter Livia, 9, are making plans to help children in need through the sale of clocks he has doubles of or little attachment to.
"Right now the idea is to start a foundation called Clocks for Kids where we’ll pick a different charity every two or three months — something like Children’s Hospital or the Children’s Wish Foundation — and donate the proceeds," he says.
"What solidified that in our heads was a few months ago when I sold a cuckoo clock to a woman who later messaged me, saying it was mostly for her three-year-old son who’s going through treatment for leukemia. He apparently loves watching cuckoo clocks — even more than watching videos — so I told her as soon as he gets better, she’ll have to bring him over so he can really see some clocks."
One more thing, if you think a person who spends a good chunk of his week fiddling around with clocks is punctual to a fault, think again.
"Before I got into clocks I ran on what my friends describe as Murray-time, always arriving 20 or 30 minutes late to wherever I was supposed to be. I’m getting better for sure, but yeah, for a person who collects clocks I’m definitely not always as prompt as I should be."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.