The Virtual Museum of Mennonite Clocks

Once Upon A Time

Gdańsk, c.1900. The structure on the right is a medieval crane used to load and unload cargo from ships. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Located on the Baltic Sea, Gdańsk has been the principal seaport in its region for centuries. There, Mennonite families used their workshops as a training ground where one generation taught their craft to the next. This craft would live on for centuries. 

Rosmarin.jpg

A map of the ‘Werder’ of the Vistula Delta, West Prussia, indicating Danzig, or, as it is now known, Gdańsk.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Gdańsk was a city thriving with trade and knowledge. Inhabitants of the city and surrounding areas spoke a variety of languages, including Polish, Dutch and German. The city was called Danzig then, and the vast drainage basin or delta of the Vistula River, which flowed into the Baltic Sea at Gdańsk, was called the Werder.

danzig_poland_kroeger_clocks.jpg

This windmill was used for draining land near a Mennonite settlement in the Vistula Delta (Poland). Background image: Lake Druzno in northern Poland (German: Drausensee). In the 16th century, Mennonites constructed a dam through the middle of the lake and eventually built villages and farmland on the former lake bottom.

Starting in the early 16th century, a community of people called Mennonites, who were followers of a Protestant reformer named Menno Simons, searched for a safe haven from persecution. Coming from the lowlands of northern Europe, many Mennonites were experienced with water drainage. These skills were needed in the Werder, where they found refuge.

drausensee_east_vistula_delta_kroeger_clocks.jpg

This clock is one of the earliest surviving Mennonite ‘Werder’ clocks (c. 1804, maker unknown). The biblical story of Jephthah from the 'Book of Judges' is portrayed on the face. Courtesy of the Kauffman Museum. Background image: Photograph of Gdańsk, Poland, 2006.

Mennonites were allowed to live in Gdańsk, but they were not granted formal citizenship within the city. By the late 18th century there were approximately 12,000 Mennonites living in Danzig and the Werder. The majority chose to settle in the surrounding rural areas. There, they helped to dyke and drain the Werder delta to create farmable land. Among the Mennonite farmers, tradespeople and artisans were a handful of clockmakers. 

gdansk_poland_kroeger_clocks.jpg

One of the earliest surviving Kroeger clocks, c.1800, made by Johann Kroeger (1754–1823) in the Werder village of Reimerswalde. It features a scene of the biblical story of Hezekiah. Biblical lessons were a theme of clocks made in the Werder in this period, and were evocative reminders of moral lessons. Background photo: Reimerswalde, where early clockmakers settled. Photo: Arthur Kroeger, 2006

Country- and city-dwelling Mennonites conducted business in the busy city. This was sometimes tolerated by the city’s ‘guild’ organisations, which monitored training and activity of trades. Since only citizens could join guilds, Mennonites were not permitted membership. For clockmakers and other tradespeople, teaching and learning occurred through apprenticeship, meaning that experienced master tradespeople would teach students on the job.

Because guilds monitored apprenticeships, Mennonites were not able to take part in the established method of education. They had to find ways of teaching and learning that suited their needs.

reimerswalde_kroeger_clocks.jpg

Interior of a clock made by Peter D. Kroeger in 1798. Background: Peter D. Kroeger in the Kroeger workshop, Rosenthal, Chortitza, 1906, demonstrating the milling machine he designed.

Mennonite clockmakers used their family workshops as training grounds, where one generation taught the trade to the next. The Kroeger family passed on the craft of clockmaking in this way. The Kroegers began making clocks in the Werder village of Reimerswalde. The first recorded maker was Peter D. Kroeger (ca. 1730–1770), who may have been preceded by other makers in his family. 

peter-d-kroeger-clock-factory-mennonite.jpg

Catherine II (‘the Great’) by Fedor Rokotov, 1763. Wikimedia Commons.