Flocks of cuckoo clocks

Share this:
August 25, 2003 // UPDATED 11:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Jim Fiorentino has 500 cuckoo clocks in his North Loop headquarters -- and they drive him anything but nuts

Jim Fiorentino says he doesn't like the sound of clocks ticking.

Still, he's somehow managed to amass more than 500 cuckoo clocks at his warehouse at 126 1st Ave. N.

The space used to house his garage-door business, but in recent years the unassuming, drab Warehouse District building has become home to the 80-year-old's elaborate collection. Besides clocks, Fiorentino has old phonographs, trains, World War I-era swords, a 1920s jukebox, pinball machines, German beer steins and camera phones, among many other items.

One of the more unusual pieces is a 17-foot band organ shipped from Holland via the Duluth Harbor in the 1970s. It ended up in the hands of a Long Lake woman. Fiorentino bought it from her in 1991.

It belts out tunes with its 630 pipes, pumping out music with an eerie carnie feel.

While the 100-year-old band organ built in Belgium is the largest and most prominent item in the warehouse, the cuckoo clocks grab the most attention during a tour of his space.

Why so many?

Fiorentino said that when looks at the clocks -- the oldest are 150 years old -- he sees "beauty, skill, talent, real artisanship."

He says the ornate woodcarving on the cuckoos is a lost art.

"I'm kind of a preservationist," he says. "I don't like to throw something of value away. ... I like to create stuff, build stuff and repair stuff."

Fiorentino doesn't keep the clocks running, so they don't start cuckooing unless someone asks to hear them and he winds them up.

"I tried running them from time to time," he says. "They disturb me, really. I'm not really collecting them as clocks. The clock part, in reality, is insignificant. I'm more interested in the woodcarvings."

In local clock circles, Fiorentino is known for his cuckoo collection, one of the largest in the area, if not the country.

"He is very unique," says Bill Weast, of Plymouth, president of the local chapter of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors. "He has clocks from the very rare to ones that are fairly common. He treats them all very well."

Form over function

Fiorentino says he appreciates his clocks more for their aesthetic appeal than for telling time.

He says has no intention of selling them and doesn't know exactly how much his collection is worth, though he suspects individual clocks are worth thousands.

The dark wooden clocks line the walls in his 7,200-square-foot warehouse.

He keeps his most valuable wooden clocks -- the mantle clocks -- in glass cabinets. One of his favorite pieces is a clock carved from a single piece of linden wood. It features two grown birds and two chicks.

Fiorentino's handiwork can be distinguished from the original work by the light-colored carvings he has patched onto the cuckoos.

The woodcarving skills he has acquired, along with other restoration techniques he has mastered, are self-taught.

They are a natural outcropping of his childhood fascination with fixing things, when he repaired old radios and other electronics.

"He's worked for everything he's made in life. He didn't have a silver spoon growing up," says Jim Winkels, a former watch and clock collectors club president. "He just somehow fell in love with these clocks."

Fiorentino says that, as a boy, he had more time to devote to fixing old things than his three older brothers. The son of Italian immigrants in North Minneapolis, Fiorentino attended vocational school and says he had more leisure time than his siblings who had to work to help support the family.

"I am not ambitious, but if I got to do something, I do it," he says. "I'm just a person who likes to do things. That's about all."

He gets many of the clocks in considerable disrepair.

Once he finds them at area estate sales, flea markets and other places, he takes them apart, re-glues them, rebuilds them, carves new parts, and sometimes replaces the clock's internal pieces.

The process can take hours and Fiorentino says he has slowed down recently. He injured himself in a fall last year in his woodworking shop.

Finding the clocks has also become a challenge. Although he's searched for cuckoos as far away as Marshall, Iowa -- 270 miles away -- the clock supply seems to be dwindling, he says.

He suspects his clock obsession stimulated greater interest in them locally, with more people snatching them up. He says the rare clocks can go for prices as high as a few thousand dollars.

Fiorentino doesn't put a dollar figure on his clocks. They mean more to him than that.

In recent years, Fiorentino has approached the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the National Clock and Watch Museum in Pennsylvania about taking on some of his clocks. He hasn't received any offers, he says.

For now, the clocks line the walls of the old warehouse.

"It's a passion. I like works of art. It's not their intrinsic value. It's not the idea of possessing them," he says. "It's just the idea that I like them and I want to preserve them."