Parts of Kern's clock still tick in Upper Peninsula
Tammy Waisanen thought she had a cool clock on her building. Little did she know it’s a big-time piece of Detroit history
Near the tip of the Upper Peninsula in the small community of Chassell, Tammy Waisanen found the perfect building to run her sauna business.
She started Keweenaw Saunas in 2014 to manufacture portable barrel saunas that homeowners could place in their backyard. The metal building she bought along U.S. 41 had 3-foot-long clock hands attached to the exterior and old wiring snaked through the wall, leading to an oil reservoir and motor. Waisanen had passed the clock every day on the way to work since the late 1980s.
“I have always loved that clock, not knowing the history it had behind it,” said Waisanen, 47.
About two months ago, she noticed a brown manila envelope on a shelf near the clock’s old wirings.
Inside, she found newspaper clips with pictures and headlines describing the Kern’s department store clock in downtown Detroit.
The iconic clock on Woodward and Gratiot was installed in 1933 on a corner entrance of the store. Shoppers would use the clock as a landmark, telling friends and family, “I’ll meet you under the Kern clock.”
Waisanen was born in Pontiac and had heard stories about the clock from her mother, who lived in Detroit. She looked closer at the articles — one declaring “Landmark Kern Clock Is Removed” — and the hands on her blue building.
“The clock is huge,” she said. “It’s just not a little clock that comes from a store. You could tell it was somewhere displayed.”
There was one more thing: “Last PAT. # July 1925” was written on the box of wires. A corroded tag, screwed onto the box, indicates the Warren Telechron Co. in Ashland, Massachusetts, made the model.
Waisanen believed she had the original clock motor that was removed from Kern’s, destined for demolition, in 1966.
“If that clock didn’t come from there, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” she told The News, “because I don’t know why I would have all the clippings.”
Keeping time a secret
Al Boda grew up in Detroit. He lived in the area until 40-some years ago when he moved to the Upper Peninsula. There, he built his tool and die shop along Route 41. On a visit home in the 1970s, his then-brother-in-law, Ron Cary, gave him a pair of broken clock hands and an old motor he had stored in his garage.
“He told me that was a Kern clock,” said Boda, 71.
Boda was a skilled machinist who could make anything from scratch looking at a blueprint.
“It sat on top of my steel rack for a number of years because I was real busy,” Boda said. “One time, I started looking at it and thought, ‘You know, I can put that in front of my building, and that would look really nice.’ ”
Boda repaired and repainted the wood hands covered in rusted copper and affixed a bracket to hang the clock outside his building.
Through blizzards, hail and rain, the clock ticked down the years.
In the early 2000s, Boda downsized and moved his shop to his house in Pelkie.
He sold the building and said he wanted to take the clock, but he ran out of time before the new owner moved in. He didn’t share the clock’s history, but did leave newspaper clippings.
“One of the main reasons I never did nothing with the clock, tell anybody about it, is because if I tell somebody, maybe the city of Detroit or someone would say, ‘Hey, that’s our clock!’ and want it back,” Boda said. “So I never told nobody about it.”
Not watching the clock
In 1966, the Zebrowski demolition company removed the clock from the Kern’s building.
“My dad told me that they put it on a flatbed truck, and the flatbed truck broke down because the clock was so heavy,” said Jeffrey Loud Kern, 63, the youngest grandchild of Otto Kern. Otto started Kern’s Department store with his brother, Ernst Kern Jr. Kern’s Dry Goods was the precursor, founded in 1883 by German immigrant Ernst Kern Sr.
“Ernst and Otto continued and grew the store into a very fine department store,” said Susan V. Lambrecht, the eldest of three grandchildren still in Metro Detroit.
Lambrecht speculates the clock may have been commissioned in the 1920s, as the 10-story Kern’s was built on Woodward and Gratiot next to Hudson’s.
“The two biggest department stores were right next to each other and people would say, ‘I’ll meet you under the clock at Kern’s.’ Because we didn’t have cellphones, people had to make a plan ahead of time,” said Joel Stone, the Detroit Historical Society’s senior curator.
That’s what Detroiters did until 1959 when the store closed amid competition from suburban shopping centers.
For seven years, the clock remained on the vacant building, until it was moved to the Stroh’s warehouse for storage.
Later, the timepiece was moved to Otto Kern’s Westview estate in Bloomfield Hills, where it was stored in the stables until the Junior League of Detroit launched the Kern Block Beautification Project in 1973.
The league raised $16,000 to restore the clock and build a pedestal.
Mary Louise Kern Viger, the only daughter of Otto Kern, was a longtime member of the league. Lambrecht, Viger’s daughter and a league member, said her family donated the clock for the cause.
“We were thrilled the Junior League took this project on,” Lambrecht said.
Working on the clock
The league stored the clock in a Goodwill building downtown until Ron Cary came to pick it up. Cary worked for Sullivan-Bernhagen, the sheet metal company that landed the deal to restore the clock.
“It came to us to be repaired because it’s all copper and 400 layers of paint on it. So basically, we stripped it down,” said Cary, now 68 of Riverview.
Cary repaired the dents and copper and worked with a company from Grand Rapids that installed new guts. The clock had three faces, which meant there were three motors inside — each with a small clock face to indicate the time displayed outside.
“When we took it apart, only one motor worked,” Cary said.
The Grand Rapids company replaced the busted glass faces with plastic and installed a modern motor. Cary had no use for the old motor, but knew his brother-in-law, Al Boda, enjoyed machine parts.
“I gave my brother-in-law the motor that operated one face of the clock,” Cary said. “I gave him the one that still worked because we weren’t using them. We would have thrown them away.”
He also gave him the wood hands, powered by the motor.
Cary’s sister remarried, and he lost touch with Boda over the decades. It wasn’t until The News reached him that he found out the motor and hands still kept time.
“I can’t believe it! You know how old that is?” he laughed. “They used to build them good, I guess.”
It was only a matter of time
As Stone of the Detroit Historical Society puts it, early 20th century clocks were “built a whole lot differently than clocks built today.” The Kern clock parts in the U.P. may not be worth much, but they do have historic value, he added.
“The fact we’ve got the original housing here, but it’s got a new clockwork in takes a little away from that historic value, just the way you take a muscle car and you pull out the original engine and put in a new engine,” Stone said. “It’s not going to be original, and it’s not going to have the same historic value.”
Robert DuMouchelle, an appraiser and auctioneer at DuMouchelle in Detroit, looked at photos of the motor in the U.P. and confirmed it’s the right vintage. After hearing the backstory of how the clock got to Chassell, he said “it sounds extremely plausible” that’s the Kern motor.
“There’s a lot of neat things that people preserved over the years, but that doesn’t automatically turn into a winning lottery ticket. ... I don’t think if you pulled it from there and put it somewhere else it would be of greater value,” he said.
The restored clock in Detroit was supposed to sit on a fancy pedestal, but Cary said the league ran out of funds, so it debuted in 1980 on a “cheaper pole.” The clock remained at its original spot until 1998 when it was removed for protection during Hudson’s demolition.
At one point, there was talk of installing it in front of the Detroit Historical Society, Stone said, “but that never happened.”
Instead, it was stored at Fort Wayne until Peter Karmanos Jr.’s team tracked down the clock to erect it outside his new Compuware building in October 2003.
“We thought it appropriate to have the clock restored and installed,” said Denise Starr, then-Compuware’s executive vice president of administration, adding it was “Karmanos’ idea to preserve that historical landmark that so many remember.”
Today, the three-faced clock, each side emblazoned with “KERN’S” in copper, remains on its home corner atop a hefty pedestal. A plaque reminds passersby, “ ‘I’ll meet you under the Kern Clock’ was a common Detroit expression for almost a century.’ ”
When told by The News, the third-generation Kerns were shocked to learn a piece of their grandfather’s clock is now on a sauna shop about 550 miles from Detroit.
“It’s really a fascinating story,” Jeffrey Kern said.
At noon Wednesday, the three grandchildren met under the clock, swapping memories and stories Detroiters have shared about using the clock as a meeting spot. The other seven Kern grandchildren, they said, were also stunned to hear the original motor is still operating on some far-away building.
“We’ll have to make a pilgrimage up to the U.P. to see it,” Jeffrey Kern said.
Waisanen, meanwhile, wasn’t surprised to find out her hunch was right. In the last few weeks, she connected with Boda who explained the clock’s inner workings and shared upkeep advice. (Waisanen already repainted the hands white before learning the history.)
And if anyone’s curious, Waisanen isn’t interested in selling it.
“I won’t let it go,” she said.