Time stands still at pigeon clock museum

Summary

Forty years after it closed, a lovingly maintained workshop in East Flanders harks back to the glory days of bird racing

 
Photo: Gerwin Basch

Everything you need to know about pigeon racing

Once upon a time, pigeon racing was immensely popular in Flanders. Almost everyone had a grandfather who “played with the pigeons”. The equipment used to time the pigeons’ flight was a Flemish product, and the factory where the counters were made is now a museum where time seems to have stood still.

Nothing about the facade of this normal-looking house in Lede, East Flanders, suggests that a small but unique museum is contained within. Christiane Nijs opens the door that gives on to a spacious workshop, and, once inside, you feel like you are stepping into another era, a time of handicrafts when people took pride in their labour.

There are manually driven metal-working machines, endless rows of wooden cupboards, jars filled with spare copper parts, all neatly arranged and numbered. On the second floor stands a long workbench, the drawers still full of tools. On the wall are old photos of men in overalls with impressive moustaches. There are also piles of machines that resemble wooden clocks. But they are not.

For those unfamiliar with Flemish folk culture, pigeon racing might seem a bizarre phenomenon. The principle, however, is simple. You breed pigeons, usually in a hutch at the back of the garden and usually to the annoyance of your wife. On Friday or Saturday, you bring your pigeons to the village pigeon club. The birds then go by train or lorry to destinations in France or Spain, from where they are released, and the one that gets home first is the winner.

On Sundays, before each radio news bulletin, there would be a short message for pigeon fanciers about the weather at the place of departure. All the pigeons would wear a ring around their leg; when the bird returned, that ring had to be put in a machine known as the constateur, or assessor, which would confirm the bird's official time.

Like yesterday

These forgotten machines, the constateurs used to time the pigeons’ flight, were made here in Lede at La Lédoise. Nijs remembers it like it was yesterday. Her grandfather was one of the founders of La Lédoise, and she once worked for the company. She still recalls the sounds of the machines, the movements the workers repeated all day, who worked where in the workshops... 

My mother was particularly keen on order. She numbered everything meticulously

- Christiane Nijs

Full of nostalgia, she speaks about how time goes by, how the women of La Lédoise folded control papers, numbered them and provided a rubber ring; how much noise the metal presses made... One thing is certain: A lot of hard work took place here.

The story of La Lédoise begins in 1898, when Jef Van Nerum, a watchmaker from Lede, took out a patent on the first type of flight time recorder. In 1904, La Compagnie Lédoise was founded, and one of the founders was Nijs’ grandfather Emile Daelmans.

The 1950s and ’60s were golden decades for La Lédoise, which remained in the family until it closed in 1973. The craftsmanship could not compete with industrial production, and new investments would have cost too much. It was the end of an era.

For 30 years, the workshops remained silent. Then the building was opened to the public on Heritage Day in 2003; and it feels like at any moment the workers could walk in, sit down and start their shift. No machine shows a speck of rust. The drawers are still full of tools. The smell of fresh machine oil lingers; dust is nowhere to be seen. The stocks are updated and organised. The production could be resumed tomorrow, says Nijs. “My mother was particularly keen on order,” she says. “She numbered everything meticulously. Now we can find any spare part in no time.”

Nijs and her husband, Frans Fransen, have maintained the factory as a sacred place, making it a unique piece of industrial archaeology. It’s not just the buildings and machinery that have been preserved: Everything is still in place as it was left. Nijs and Fransen are the last witnesses who can tell you first-hand how it all worked at La Lédoise. It’s something unique, and more than worth a visit.

La Lédoise is at Kerkevijverstraat 13 in Lede. For groups, reservations can be made through the Lede Tourism Department on 053.60.68.00. More info about pigeon clocks can be found at www.duivenklokken.com and at Tom's Pigeon Museum 

Time stands still at pigeon clock museum

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