At 22 feet, the world’s tallest freestanding cuckoo clock happens to be located in the city of Kimberley, B.C.
Erected in 1973, the clock yodels on cue, but instead of offering a bird it features Happy Hans, a Bavarian-style mountaineer in alpine hat and lederhosen, sporting a beer stein. In celebration of his 50th birthday Happy Hans is set to undergo an estimated $60,000 historic restoration this fall.
The clock was part of an effort to reinvent the town as a Bavarian tourist village following the closure of the Sullivan Mine, the town’s largest employer.
Katherine Petersen, general manager of the Kimberley and District Chamber of Commerce, and the person tasked with the restoration project, notes Happy Hans was erected without a building permit as a team funded by the Kimberly Bavarian Society worked under wraps to build the clock over a winter.
“In 1973, over the course of a Labour Day weekend, when a lot of people were out of town, they put it up,” she says.
Period newspaper reports credit locals Dick Bova, who built the frame, and Arcadia Niessen, who decorated it. Bill Spence, who ran a local radio and TV shop, built the clock works and mechanics. Artist Bud Amy created the Happy Hans figure out of resin. Adi Unterberger, known locally as the Yodelling Woodcarver, provided the singing voice, recorded to 8-track tape.
The newly-minted clock emitted a steady stream of incessant yodels during that first Labour Day weekend, according to a 2002 issue of local paper The Bulletin. Following widespread public complaints, the mayor hunted down Bova and Spence, threatening to tear the clock down. The pair refused to turn each other in. The clock remained.
While Happy Hans was eventually reduced to one yodel on the hour, it proved still too much for local businesses. The installation was converted to a coin-op model with the insertion of a quarter — now a loonie — required to produce a song.
“I believe the original clockworks were powered by an old, geared down record turntable,” Petersen says. “That was eventually replaced with the donation of a proper electric clock motor.”
The clock has received some additional upgrades over the years, once when Happy Hans was sidelined altogether by mechanical difficulties.
The current restoration project includes a wide range of repairs, upgrades and replacements with the scope of some of the work dependent on contractor assessments. This includes repair and resealing of the concrete base, additional framing to strengthen the second and third floors, repair and replacement of damaged boards, work on the cedar shake roof and a top-to-bottom paint job. The plexiglass clock face must also be cleaned, repaired or replaced.
“Happy Hans is propelled by a system that’s driven by an air compressor,” Petersen says. “It’s very temperature sensitive, so we’re also redoing the insulation and ensuring that the clock is properly sealed.”
Unterberger’s distinctive yodel is also being digitized and provided with an upgraded sound system. The Kimberley Arts Council is calling on artists to perform restorative work on the four-foot-tall Happy Hans character, who requires some paint and is short a finger.
The project is being financially supported by several sources, including Heritage BC’s Heritage Legacy Fund, the City of Kimberley, the Regional District of East Kootenay and local supporters.
Happy Hans will be attending Kimberley Oktoberfest on Oct. 7 and, in a perfect world, construction will begin the following week and conclude by Christmas, in time for ski season.
Petersen has lived in Kimberley for eight years but recalls seeing the clock as a visiting child. She says the restoration project is personally significant to her.
“When it needed to, Kimberley was able to reinvent itself and put itself on the map,” she says. “Even though the city has moved away from the Bavarian theme, it will continue to reinvent itself to remain relevant and to keep people and tourists coming here. Happy Hans is a symbol of how strong and resilient the city is — a reminder of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.”