The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 30, 2012

Clock repairer's occupation is minute

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — As a kid, Steven Hultengren had wind-up toys that buzzed and clacked and annoyed his mother so much she broke them to bring her quiet.

At which point her 8-year-old son would take them apart, tinker away in fascination of their mechanical innards and make them work anew.

From there he stepped up to clocks, his interest keened by the slew of them his grandfather owned.

Decades later, the interest remains. Hultengren has made a career as a clock repairman, most recently opening a new shop in St. Peter after a 25-year stint in Eagle Lake.   

Hultengren’s job isn’t on the list of obsolete occupations. He’s not in the same boat as blacksmiths, elevator operators and door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.

That said, there aren’t a lot of clock repairmen remaining.

“Let’s see,” he says, taking a mental inventory of his regional counterparts.

“There’s some guys in the Cities, and someone in Rochester...”

And Hultengren hereabouts. That’s it.

In the vernacular, he’s a horologist — someone who makes and repairs clocks — and his ilk is an increasing rarity.

As times change, so do timepieces. Digital battery-operated clocks costing a few bucks and ever-present cellphones that tell you the time and wake you in the morning have usurped much of the need for clock repairmen.

Even so, Hultengren says, thank God for Minnesota’s Germans, Scandinavians and their grandfather, mantel and cuckoo clocks that are his specialty.

“They love their clocks,” he says, a smile crossing his face. “And I have no problem with that.”

Hultengren’s business, It’s About Time, is in the heart of downtown St. Peter. The move from Eagle Lake was necessitated by the city tearing down the building he occupied in favor of new development.

Prior to locating his business in Eagle Lake, the Mankato native spent more than three decades on the West Coast, where he apprenticed with a clockmaster eight years, opened his own business, and completed his ministry studies that continue to inform his life.

“I’m thoroughly convinced that all gifts, talents and abilities come from God,” said Hultengren, who logs a lot of volunteer hours at his church and is active in jail and prison ministries.

Being a clock repairman is anything but standardized and formulaic because the next family heirloom coming through the door may have workings Hultengren hasn’t seen before.

That’s when he has to fashion repair parts on the fly.

“You just don’t go to your friendly Arrow Ace Hardware and say, ‘I’ll take that part’ because it’s just not there.”

The oldest timepiece he ever worked on: a crudely built circa 1740 wall clock.

His weirdest repair: A woman who brought in a non-working clock was utterly puzzled by its sudden balkiness. Hultengren popped open the back and there lay a plastic spider wedged against the gears.

Yup, grandkids.