By Arthur Kroeger. Mennonite Heritage Village, Steinbach, Man., 2012, 174 pages.
My cousin Arthur’s book about clocks of the Russian Mennonites, and about Kroeger clocks in particular, is the result of a life-long labour. He is the last in a Krueger/Kroeger lineage over two centuries long who created and sold these artifacts, and then cleaned and repaired them in subsequent decades. Many of the clocks served as icons that integrated family, community and colony life over generations.
Arthur’s father Peter and my mother Margaretha were siblings. Some 25 years ago, when she was about 90 years old, my mother wrote her recollections that provide details of her life when she, Peter and other siblings lived next to the Kroeger clock factory in Rosenthal, South Russia, a century ago.
The book begins with an historical sketch of the lineage of the “Reimerswalde-Rosenthal” lineage of Krueger/Kroeger clock-makers. The second part describes the invention and evolution of clock-making that led to the particular kind of clock made by this family. The third and final part has stories of individual Kroeger clocks, often including disastrous events during which clocks and lives were saved. The stories serve to weave together many aspects of the first two parts of the book with the personalities and lives of many clock owners.
Arthur acknowledges colleagues for providing exceptional help with this book, including Victor Peters and Roland Sawatzky, and the printers, Friesens of Altona, which beautifully reproduced many full-colour photographs of clocks. The foreward, by Al Reimer, provides an important introduction to this complex book.
Arthur acknowledges about 200 people who helped him amass information about many Kroeger clocks over the past half-century. Many shared a commitment to care for the clocks as they carried them to Eastern Europe and then to South and North America.
While the clocks were an important business feature in the Russian Mennonite commonwealth, the motivation of the successive generations of Kroegers in their clock-making was not primarily capitalistic. They attached importance to the clocks’ contributions to the Gemeinschaft, or communitarian dynamics.
The author has included short accounts of other clock-makers in the Mennonite colonies of Russia. One of these, David Lepp, was my ancestor on my father’s side. After about 1850, Lepp switched to making farm machinery, which led eventually to the factories of my great-great uncle, A. J. Koop. I infer from my father’s memoir that, like the Kroegers, he was more communitarian than capitalistic in his motivations.
As Arthur recounts, the first Krueger who came to the Russian Mennonite colonies was Johann, who arrived in Chortitza/Rosenthal in 1804. Rosenthal was in a secluded valley near Chortitza, to which “Deputy” Johan Bartsch had retreated following the turbulent early years after the first settlement in Chortitza in 1789. When Johann Kruger brought his clock-making tools to Rosenthal, his son Abraham married Margaretha, Bartsch’s daughter. Margaretha’s younger brother, Jacob, became the Oberschulze, or senior official, for the Old Colony. Presumably having his brother-in-law serving in that role didn’t hurt Abraham Kroeger’s clock enterprise.
With its writings, sketches, family photos and especially the many photographs of the beautiful clocks, this book joins a growing library of books about Russian Mennonites in which the secular and sacred can’t be fully teased apart.
Henry A. Regier lives in Elmira, Ont.