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A local legend revisited - Casey Jones


Anna Jauhola

The children strummed ukuleles and sang "Casey, Casey, Casey Jones" to the audience in Hallock City Hall. The children did not sing about the train engineer who died in the Vaughn train wreck of 1900. This song is about Frederick McKinley Jones, nicknamed Casey by a train engineer who dropped him off at the Hill Farm in Northcote.

Jones was a brilliant African-American inventor living in a predominantly white community in the early 1900s. He knew his place, many said, but that didn't bother Jones. It is ironic that two white women, Gloria Swanson and Virginia Ott, would write about Jones a decade after his death when he was hardly recognized by the community for his accomplishments when he was alive.

In the early 1970s, Gloria Swanson and Virginia Ott began research on the life of Frederick McKinley Jones. Neither Swanson nor Ott personally met Jones, but they found him a fascinating man. The women spoke with people of Hallock and Minneapolis who knew Jones. Swanson and Ott spoke with Joseph Numero in Minneapolis, the Jewish businessman who hired Jones in the 1930s. Numero censored the book extensively because it made him look bad. His behavior toward Jones was prejudiced, no doubt. Numero paid Jone's very little and did not give any patents solely to Jones. Jones was only an asset to the company.

Not all of Swanson's and Ott's interviews were discriminatory. Those who personally knew Jones spoke highly of him. Clifford Bouvette, Jones's best friend, thought "the sun rose and set in Casey Jones." The final touches were put into the manuscript and in 1977, A Man with a Million Ideas, was published. In 1992, after reading A Man with a Million Ideas, Larry Long of Minneapolis wrote a folk opera with the help of the fourth and fifth graders of Hallock Elementary and a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. They performed the play for the city of Hallock in the spring of 1992.

For Swanson and Ott, the first book was too censored by Numero. In 1994, Swanson and Ott republished the book with a different title, I've Got an IDEA!, Swanson said, "We had more freedom and the second book was more honest." The women freely printed that Numero did not let Jones have full credit for his inventions. The second book's title was also unsatisfactory to Swanson and Ott. Ott said they wanted the title to be I've Got an IDEAR!, so it sounded the way Jones spoke. But the editor did not like the southern dialect in the title; more discrimination.

Jones grew up in Covington, Ky., with his Irish-American father. Jones attended school until age 11 at a monastery. At 11, Jones quit school, ran away from the monastery and lived on the streets. At 14, Jones began to learn all he could about mechanics through working in different car garages and on a steam ship. These experiences aided him when he moved to Hallock in 1912.

At the James J. Hill Farm, operated by Hill's son Walter, in Northcote, Jones was a mechanical genius. He could fix anything from the farm equipment to Hill's Packards. After Hill sold the farm in 1916, Jones worked for Oscar Younggren in Hallock. Almost everyone came to Jones to have anything fixed. Jones made a wireless telegraph for his best friend Clifford Bouvette, a portable X-ray machine for his friend Dr. Arthur W. Shaleen, and made radios out of scraps cheaply for local residents. Most of his inventions were made from scraps.

He made a turntable for the Hallock Grand Theater as the equipment was too expensive to buy. Also, he created a better device to read the soundtrack on film because the Grand could not afford to rent the equipment. This device got Jones noticed by Joseph Numero. Numero came to Hallock and asked Jones to work for his company, Ultraphone Sound Systems. Jones agreed and would soon become a legend.

While in Minneapolis, Numero and Jones made an agreement that Numero would provide housing and work space for Jones as long as Numero's company got all the rights to his inventions. Jones sealed the deal without hesitation; he didn't care about the rights, he just wanted to invent. He also met his wife Lucille in Minneapolis who eventually took care of Jones's money.

In 1939, Jones invented the most crucial component in shipping refrigerated foods, the Thermo King refrigeration unit for truck trailers. Jones received credit for inventing the device and revolutionized the perishable food industry with the Thermo King. His design was so ahead of its time that the same basic design is used today. However he never saw any profits, Numero had made sure of that.

Jones died in 1961 of lung cancer and was buried at Fort Snelling in St. Paul. Jones may not have collected any money for his inventions but he certainly became famous. In 1991, Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology because "his inventions have contributed vastly to raising the quality of life of people all over the world." He was the first African-American to receive this medal.

The children strummed and hummed the last few lines of "Casey, Casey, Casey Jones" to a round of applause. The children stood, bowed and watched as the audience stood, applauding the story of Casey Jones.