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The Move to Moscow


    Above: The Canton watchmakers en route to Moscow aboard the Aquitania.            

Dueber-Hampden watchmakers in Moscow:

Twenty three former Dueber-Hampden watchmakers, engravers and various other technicians, who lost their jobs when the company went into liquidation, were re-hired, on a years contract, to help train the Russian workers in the art of watchmaking. The party, including Sue Killen the only female watchmaker, left Canton on the 25th of February 1930 and spent several days in New York before setting sail aboard the RMS Aquitania on March 1st. The eight day sea voyage was reportedly rough and ended in Cherbourg. The party reached Moscow on the 16th of March via Berlin and Warsaw. A band and a large crowd greeted them before they were taken to their allotted accommodation throughout the city. On the 18th of March they were given a banquet at the Grand Hotel with table settings belonging to the late Tzar. During the wait until the factory was finished they were entertained and enjoyed being shown around the city, including a visit to the Kremlin.


Pictures of the factory under construction, originally belonged to John Miller and I am grateful to his great grandson Dave Miller for permission to use them. Dave told me “Great grandfather was the superintendent of the Dueber-Hampden works in Canton. He started there about 1889 when he was only 14-years-old and spent 41 years working at the watch works moving up through the ranks. When the works moved to Russia it was great-grandfather who was in charge”. Each of his Canton men, had his own individual skill and expertise to train the Russian workers in their corresponding departments. For example: Collins Wilcox was foreman of the flat steel and screw department: Charles Hammer was an automatic linemen: Sue Killen worked in the watch train department: William Goodenberger was a master mechanic: Alfred Fravel a tool maker: Isaac. Jackson was the foreman of the escapement department: Theo Freymark a machine shop foreman: Joe Snyder was the balance dept. foreman: Ira Aungst a model maker: G. Woolston was a watchmaker: Louis Ryman screw department foreman: Karl Krumm worked in the motion department: Victor Roust worked in the escapement department: H. Gebhart was a finisher. Herman London was the Job Boss of the Leaf Cutting dept.


All the Americans reported that they were well looked after and that all their expenses were met. They were given pay even when they were too ill to work and free hospital treatment, neither of which they enjoyed in Canton. Each worker was said to have been paid around $4,650 ($66,000 in today’s money) plus $300 expenses and provided with a cook and a waiter. One of the party, Ira Aungst the first Cantonian to have been employed by John Dueber, was very impressed by the speed that the Russians picked up the skills, especially the women. Only Samuel Zubkoff and Herman London could speak Russian, otherwise after English, German was the most common language used between the US and Russian workers. It’s interesting to note that North Canton, close to the site of the Dueber-Hampden factory, was called New Berlin until 1918 and had been predominantly settled by German immigrants.

In propaganda terms the Soviets were at pains to play down any real need for American involvement and to imply they were somewhat incompetent.

Here are three snippets from Gershenzon's account (some liberties have been taken with the translation). A PDF copy in English is downloadable at the foot of this page.


May 3, 1930 at the technical meeting of the plant the control figures of the product plan were discussed 1930/31 and 1931/32 economic years. A call to speed up the installation of equipment was not met with enthusiasm by the American Superintendent John Miller. The American said that the technical document for the installation of the works had been prepared incorrectly, making going faster impossible, especially as Russians do not know English and we do not know Russian. The factory construction work was incomplete only the bridge and the assembly shops are ready, and even then not fully. With only a few machines for training the managers, foremen and engineers.


The American instructors attention was drawn to the creaking of one machine, especially when it started to work. To find out the reason the American took a part being made out of the mill and went to the next shop where the translator was working. So the Russian trainees quickly dis-assembled, cleaned and re-assembled the machine. When the American and the translator returned the trainee said “Tell him there are no polar bears here.”, meaning they were not stupid. The trainees explained what they had done to the machine and that it was working fine, the American seemed to think the fault had simply gone away on its own. Later, as word spread, a whole delegation came: the Director of the plant Vladimirsky, Superintendent of Dueber-Hampden John Miller, Chief Engineer of our plant Breytburt, consultant to the director V.O. Pruss and foreman IS. Ilyin. The Director said “You could not have repaired the mill without training”. So the trainees again dis-assembled the mill, pulled out a part and showed the chief engineer. They said the part had been covered in rust and had formed deep scratches. By the terms of the contract the Americans had been required to refurbish all the machines before sending them to the USSR. As a result of the meeting the whole machine was refurbished, repainted to look like new.


Markoff the Russian Head of the department of semi-automatic machines recalled “In the machine shop worked two American instructors Jackson and Sue Killen. She had been head of the department of semi-automatic machines, a 60-year-old women in poor health. They were reluctant to pass on their experience. We, through the translator, tried to find out absolutely everything that they knew. Frustrated we got down to concentrate directly on the machines and began to process all the details of all operations for ourselves and to record the sequence of these operations. Given that the machines are old, worn, requiring frequent adjustment, we decided to study not only how they work, but also their design elements to be able to repair and adjust the machines. Sue Killen often did not show up for work for several days on end. On one of these days there was a problem with the most complex machine. So we decided to fix ourselves, we dis-assembled it and cleaned it and put it back together successfully. This caused a scandal and the indignation of Jackson, the other American instructor in the shop."


    Above: Various views of the 1st State Watch Factory 1GCHZ under construction.            

The Soviets would have been happy for any American to stay after their one year contracts were up (and a six month extension for some six men) but at Soviet pay rates. All but one returned to the US. Many friendships were formed and the comrades tried to keep in touch, but over a relatively short period the heavily (Soviet) censored correspondence dried up. You must read the later Herman London appendix to find out about the one who remained.


There is no evidence that souvenir watches were brought back, nor that they were they given as presentations. Certainly their leader, John C. Miller, was not rewarded this way. In a letter home, dated March 21st 1930, Sue Killen the only woman worker to travel from Canton, writes her friend telling about the first days in Moscow.

“The Trust gave a banquet for us at the Grand Hotel on Tuesday night.The hotel really is a “grand hotel” and was formerly occupied by the royalty. The banquet had all the trimmings and was not over until 3 in the morning. The orchestra was wonderful and during the evening played many American tunes.

They plan to setup the machinery in the one completed wing at once and we will instruct there. We arrived in Moscow, Sunday March 15th, and were served lunch at the station. We were then taken in Ford taxi cabs to our apartments, 3 mile apart. I haven’t seen any of the other Canton people since we left the station.

Mr Fravel, the Zubkoffs and myself are on the second floor, and six other Canton men are on the first floor of this home. It was formerly owned by the aristocracy and was confiscated by the government. It was built in the 17th century and the walls are 3 feet thick. The heating and plumbing are not the best but they are modern. The bath tub is carved from one piece of marble. 

I haven’t done anything this week but sit around here and read. It’s so cold here. I can’t go outside and it’s so hard to walk on the rough sidewalks. The boys go out and wander around the city. The language is absolutely impossible to learn and when you can’t talk to anyone it’s hard to get around. I’ve been waiting all week for someone to take me to the bank to get some checks cashed.”

William Goodenberer made a scrapbook, and in it he kept newspaper cuttings of the trip, postcards, photos of some of the Muscovites they trained and many other mementoes. It’s probably the best record that was compiled. Interestingly, the book itself was made from an old Dueber-Hampden factory production ledger. There is a collage of photographs of the Soviet workers he trained and a signed letter from them (see photo below). A translation of the letter follows...

"Comrade Goodenberger The Five Year Plan of our industry called for the construction of the Watch Factory in Moscow.This Five Year Plan has been carried out during the past year and a half, by cooperating with the American specialists and especially with you Comrade Goodenberger.During this period we built our factory and started production with an average output of 250 watches per day for the beginning.We are greatly indebted to you comrade Goodenberger, for these accomplishments.During this time you succeeded in conveying to us all your great knowledge and experience in watchmaking, acquired by 40 years of actual work. You helped us in learning the Plate Department, so now there are no secrets left whatever in the work of this department.During your stay in the U.S.S.R. you undoubtably realised that all our aims and wishes have no other goal but to create better life for the mankind on the earth, for which purpose our Five Year Plan is serving.We are sure that on your arrival to U.S.A. you will try to relate to the American workers the whole truth about U.S.S.R. - about our life, our work and our aims and to reveal the lies about U.S.S.R. spread by our enemies.
The workers of the Plate Dept. First State Watch Factory, Moscow, 19th August 1931."

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    Above: Self explanatory newspaper clipping © Canton Repository..            

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    Above: John Miller instructing. © ANHYSBYS

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Jacksons Shop. Centre row. London, Gebhart, Jackson, Killen & Hammer amongst the shop workers. Markov lower far right - Zwilling lower third left. © ANHYSBYS

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Collins Wilcox in the centre of his shop © ANHYSBYS


Above. John Miler's Soviet Rail Pass © Dave Miller


Above. Goodenbergers factory pass pasted in his scrapbook which was an old Hampden factory ledger. ©  McKinley Library & Museum

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Left. Goodenbergers scrapbook photo's of his Moscow 'comrades'. Right. Signed letter sent to Goodenberger. Both images ©McKinley Library & Museum

Other foreign watchmakers.

The Canton watchmakers were not typical of other guest workers hired by the Soviets at this time. Their purpose was limited to the installation and operation of the old Dueber-Hampden machines. The Soviets desperately tried to recruit hundreds of Swiss and other western watchmakers, as there were too few skilled workers in the USSR. Many of these recruits were suffering deprivation from the depression affecting the west, some were idealistic socialists. But the plan failed generally; for one thing the Swiss authorities made emigration difficult, for another the promised Soviet utopia failed to materialise, making life harsh for those watchmakers and their families that had emigrated. Germany was another source of recruits especially those with socialist leanings, and to an extent those with a Jewish background. Anti semitism was more apparant in the rapidly expanding Nazi regime than in the USSR. In the period leading up to WWII the vast majority returned home only to have all their possessions and funds confiscated at the border. Pruss was fundamental in this recruitment as he was one of a few Russians with good contacts in Switzerland. He was still convinced that the pocket watch technology approach had been a mistake. In the end his attempts failed and because of his association with foreigners it possibly contributed to him facing a trumped-up charge of spying, for which he paid with his life. 


However, not all guest workers were treated badly. Writing in the German 'Uhren und Schmuck' publication in 1985, Helmut and Edith Klemmer reported that on August 8, 1930, 12 skilled workers, from the Saxony watchmaking town of Glashütte, went to Moscow to help build the watch industry. The source of the information was a contemporary article in the 'Uhrmacherkunst' magazine. ‘The twelve men were: Fritz Bernhard, Willy Dittrich, Willy Estler, Ernst Hruschka, Eugene Kulms, Paul Mende, Alfred Moche, Johannes Moche, Alfred Reichel, Hans Tittel, Fritz Walter and Alfred Weichelt. These watchmakers, toolmakers and maintenance men went to train new workers with the skills required for production and development of watches at the newly constructed State watch factory. Their contract lasted five years, and expired on November 7, 1935. At the conclusion everyone received a pocket watch with dedication’ (see picture below).


FOOTNOTE to the 23 Canton Watchmakers.

Herman London died in the USSR in July 1974 and John Miller passed away in October 1934.

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Gershenzon's article "First Hours"

My English interpretation - please click the PDF icon to open it.

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Sam Weinberg's article "American Worker"


Please click the PDF icon to open it.

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