‘I Love Stories About People Going Rogue’: 5 Questions with Kathleen Wiens

A board member of the Kroeger Clock Heritage Foundation, Kathleen Wiens is a storyteller extraordinaire. See her storytelling abilities shine in The Virtual Museum of Mennonite Clocks, online at https://www.kroegerclocks.com/clock-stories 

1. What makes Kroeger Clocks so special…and, so Mennonite?

One of the coolest things about “Mennonite clocks” (Kroeger makers being one family among several makers of this specific style of wall-mounted clock) is their “origin story.” The earliest clocks that we know of built by Mennonite makers such as the Kroeger family come from what is now northern Poland, around the city of Gdańsk. It’s been said that Mennonite artisans were generally not allowed to join the trade guilds in the area (purportedly because they were perceived as unwanted outsiders from another land). Even without the network of support and economic advantage that guilds offered, Mennonite artisans successfully established their own workshops. I love stories about people “going rogue” and operating outside of authority. That notion captures what I imagine was part of the spirit of early Anabaptists who knew a lot about operating under the radar.

These clocks now live anywhere in the world that people of Mennonite heritage live. They live throughout North, Central, and South America, and all across Europe into Siberia. Our project hopes to bring clock owners into dialogue, but also make a beautiful part of our collective heritage better known to all.

2. What first drew you to working with Kroeger Clocks?

I’ve always been a Mennophile. I especially love our tangible heritage. When I was but a wee undergrad I worked for one summer at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. There I encountered Mennonite clocks for the first time and was captivated by the patterns and how each face was unique. I didn’t realize that there was a culture of clock making amongst Mennonites, so at the time it was very new information to me. Since then, it’s been a dream of mine to have one on a wall in my own home. Being part of this project, and trying to connect the public with these artefacts through storytelling has been both an honour and a delight.

For me, Mennonite clocks represent resilience and creativity. I’ve often noted that Mennonites tend to put a lot of energy and resources into capturing their “intangible heritage,” such as religious practice or written/researched history. We often ground the narratives of our “collective memory” in themes of persecution and dislocation. I believe, however, that our tangible heritage is also extremely important. Physical objects are where we find evidence of the resilience and creativity that not only brought us through the challenges of history, but also brought joy into people’s lives and homes. Tangible heritage is not the quaint side projects of our ancestors: it is our people embedding their priorities, experiences, hearts, minds, and spirits into our physical world. There are some wonderful individuals and institutions that have helped preserve and share our tangible heritage, but I believe even more can and should be done. From my perspective, tangible heritage provides an important avenue through which we can not only explore our collective past, also better understand our present. From tangible heritage we can learn how the people before us overcame the challenges they faced; we can learn from the clues left to us in the objects they created. Mennos make amazing and creative things, and I’d love to see us value and support those “things” even more than we do.

3. You’re not alone in this endeavour. Who have you all been working with, in regards to Kroeger Clocks?

This project brings together what I consider a “dream team” of heritage professionals; a team of energetic folks who love tangible heritage. First and foremost is our fearless leader Liza Kroeger. This is her passion project, and without big thinkers and bold “doers” like Liza this sort of project would never be accomplished. It was the work of her late father Arthur that helped preserve the legacy of Mennonite clocks. Alexandra Kroeger is a museum professional and researcher who conducted the foundational research from which the project stemmed. Our designer Aniko Szabo, who also brought the Steinbach exhibition to life, is a rare talent when it comes to visual storytelling. We were joined by phenomenal filmmaker Bill Acheson, stellar photographer Jerry Grajewski, and clock aficionado Rolly Wickstrom. We also depended on a list of clock owners who generously allowed us access to their clocks for photographing, documenting, and in some cases museum display.

4. As you’ve worked on this project, what’s one of your favourite stories that you’ve encountered?

There have been several stories come to light about people who carried these heavy clocks with them as they fled their homes to seek safety in other countries. They crossed oceans and vast territories, and they carried their clocks with them despite severe limits to what they could carry and often desperately quick departures. I marvel that under such circumstances families chose to carry these cumbersome objects with them. These clocks must have meant a lot to the families who kept them. At the exhibition opening in Steinbach, one woman told a story about how her family clock meant so much to her grandmother that she buried it in the garden as enemies were approaching. This defiant act symbolized that she was not going to let someone else take ownership of her treasured possession!

5. Thanks to you, I’ve learned of The Virtual Museum of Mennonite Clocks. What a beautiful website — you must be very proud!

Glad you liked it and I hope others enjoy it as well. Anyone is welcome to reach out to us if they know of someone with an interesting clock story. Also, if you like the website, you’ll love the Steinbach exhibition! It expands from the stories on the website, and is absolutely THE exhibition to see this summer in Manitoba. The MHV design and curatorial team truly “knocked it out of the park,” it’s gorgeous… total eye candy!

Visit the Kroeger Clock Exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, and The Virtual Museum of Mennonite Clocks at https://www.kroegerclocks.com/

Images courtesy of Jerry Grajewski.