Casey Jones: a man of many talents

This article by Shirley Lomheim, gives us many 'new' insights into Casey's life, spoken largely through the recollections of Shirley's father, Joseph Houghton, who was a good friend of Casey's for many years. This provides us with an important piece of the puzzle of Casey Jones.

by Shirley Lomheim

First published in Saskatchewan's Folklore periodical Summer 2010 Edition

In 1910 when Kenneth Harris Jones began working as a carpenter in Moose Jaw's Canadian Pacific Railway years, he was nicknamed 'Casey' after the hero of a popular railroad song of the day. According to my father, Joseph Houghton, Casey's friend and co-worker, from then on he always referred to himself as Casey and years later he signed his many paintings with the adopted name.

Although Casey has hired on as an apprentice carpenter, he soon demonstrated an expertise in his work, impressing the CPR with his innovative and time-saving techniques. He told my father that his only previous experience had been as a young British soldier volunteering during the Boer War, watching and assisting other soldiers build huts. His training ended in less than a month when concerned parents informed the army that he was barely 15.

Proud of his kinship through his mother with the noted author, Rudyard Kipling, he could recite many of his poems, including the stirring "If". Claiming that his parents had known the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson as a friend, he enthralled his co-workers with animated versions of his poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade". He had a deep resonant voice, singing a wide variety of songs from the bawdy music halls of England to Gilbert and Sullivan and operatic arias. My father used to say all the men knew where Casey was working by the booming melodies emanating throughout the yards. People who had not met him, and who followed the sounds to see who was entertaining, were amazed to find a small man with such a powerful voice, all the time industriously keeping up with his carpentry.

During summers on his one day off per week, Casey visited the Sioux encampment south of the city where he sketched portraits of band members as well as prairie scenes of early aboriginal lifestyles.

His interest in the Sioux stretched farther than simply drawing them: he tried to learn their language. He wrote words phonetically in a note book, later practising the speech over and over as he worked at his job. While my father admired him for trying to learn the language, many other men derided him. It did not seem to faze Casey in the least. Over many long winters, he completed the portraits and scenes he sketched, painting in oils. He sold or donated five Sioux portraits to the old Moose Jaw Post Office where I viewed them often as a child from the 1930's until the Post Office was replaced by a new building in the 1960s. Those five portraits are now housed in the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery. Other paintings are owned by Calgary's Glenbow Museum and by Regina's Museum of Natural History.

Although Casey worked only three years on the CPR- moving to B.C., then to Swift Current and finally settling in Mortlach, he and my father remained close friends all their lives. Casey did not like city life. He preferred the quiet of smaller towns and visited my parents only occasionally, catching a ride on passing freight trains. I have only vague memories of his visits in the 1930's when I was a child, but I do recall that he was always interested in my school work and in the titles of the books I was reading. He once recommended the cowboy books by Zane Grey which I read with great pleasure.

When we bought a piano, he visited, immediately sitting at the instrument, playing with great skill. My grandfather had been a piano teacher, so my mother fully appreciated Casey's performance. Casey also played the violin with an impressive ability. In response to my mother's questions about his training, he casually remarked that as a child, in addition to being tutored at home, he had "suffered" through many years of piano and violin instruction. When his parents sent him, at age 11, to a boarding school, the study of the two instruments continued as part of his curriculum. My parents, who both had received the usual education offered in England in their day, were highly impressed with Casey's superior schooling. For my mother, sensitive to Britain's rigidly structured class system, Casey seemed to have come from a wealthy, elite family, though Casey was reluctant to say much about his background.

In researching his life, I have confirmed my mother's suspicions regarding his previous life of privilege and culture. His father was a wealthy glove manufacturer while his mother had ties to England's Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and to other notable figures. One sister held an important post with the Royal Family, another was a respected artist in miniatures and the third directed England's most prestigious school of needlework.

My father made many trips to Mortlach to visit Casey, traveling as Casey had, by freight train. After three or four rather unsuccessful dinners his host had prepared, my father chose not to stay long. He did not fancy the wild rabbit, nor, in autumn, game birds cooked into stews with strange tasting herbs gleaned from the prairie. Besides that, he did not relish picking out all the rabbit hairs and tiny bones floating in the stews. The only good parts of those meals were the delectable berry pies Casey had baked.

Other than the meals, visits to Mortlach were always highlights of my father's weeks. He used to tell us of Casey's knack for using discarded lumber, bent nails, and half empty cans of paint from his many worksites for use in his home where he build cupboards for supplies and shelves for the many books he had ordered from Britain and the USA.

Father was fascinated by the multitude of stone artifacts, arranged both outside and inside Casey's house. Some of these were very large and heavy petroglyphs. He also had boxes, crates and old cans full of ancient, aboriginal spear points and other small artifacts that he gathered from the prairie. While a few of the items were displayed in box frames on all four walls, most of them crowded his rooms. My father said at times. that unless one was careful, a person could trip over his vast collection.

Although my father had no inkling of the value of his finds, he respected Casey's great interest in his enterprise. Casey explained that when he discovered a new relic, he would try to locate a similar one in illustrations from his many books on the early culture of Indians. He added that the more artifacts he found, the more his interest grew, searching and digging until it was too dark to see. My father was intrigued but thought it was a strange quest since the stone relics all appeared the same to him.

I wish my parents had appreciated the significance of Casey's collection, particularly spear points that he found in 1924. They were later identified as Folsom points, leaf-like in shape with central, concave-grooves running their length.

Realizing that the find was unlike any he had ever seen in archaeological journals, Casey sent a description to well respected authorities in the USA. Professional archaeologists were amazed that Casey's discovery closely match the points found at Folsom, New Mexico. They proved to be from a culture that lived several thousand years ago, substantiating the theory that an ancient people had migrated from southern Saskatchewan to the far south of North America. This outstanding discovery cause American scientists to travel to Mortlach to view Casey's accumulation of relics and, in subsequent years, for Saskatchewan archaeologists to conduct a thorough search of the site. Today, the Besant dig is an important and well-known project, both nationally and in the USA.

Although my father had not understood the great interest that the Folsom find had generated, he was aware that Casey was receiving many visits from scientists traveling by train from across the United States, to Chicago, where they transferred to the Soo Line for Moose Jaw, and from there, on the CPR to Mortlach.

My father used to comment that he hoped those "damn fool collectors" would not be tempted into staying long enough for one of Casey's dinners, saying that if they did, they would head straight back to the USA for a decent meal.

Casey seemed pleased with the visits, but he did not appear to be impressed. In fact, he was reticent to speak much about his stupendous finds. His reluctance to boast is confirmed by an early member of the Saskatoon Archaeology Society Jessie Caldwell, who recalls in the book Out of the Past that she had visited Casey to see his "tremendous collection". She points out that people had to visit him as he "never came up here" so "we never had him speak" to the Society. She adds that he "just kept collecting and had some very interesting stuff. His collection was more varied and extensive than anything else we knew of."

When Casey indicated that he would like to have his assemblage of materials sent to a museum, institutions across the USA, including the Smithsonian Institute, clamoured to buy it. While they were offering much more than any Canadian museum, Casey Wanted the collection to remain in Canada, preferably in Saskatchewan.  The collection, along with some portraits of the Sioux who had camped in Moose Jaw every spring until 1917, was purchased by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

In 1956, at the age of 71, Casey's leg was amputated following a carpentry accident. During his stay in hospital, my father visited him there. Casey, appearing to be fairly cheerful despite his misfortune, said his only regret at losing his leg was it signaled an end to his prairie rambles and searches. He noted in a moment of optimism, that now, besides catching up on reading the many books he had accumulated, he would return to painting. My father was heartened by his apparent acceptance of his disability. Casey outlived my father by several years, dying at the age of 83 in 1968.

Once, when my father asked him why he had devoted so many years to collecting, Casey replied that since he had been a small boy, he had always been fascinated by Canada's aboriginals. His interest stemmed from reading "penny dreadfuls", comic-like books of adventure which often feature stories of the Wild West when Indians roamed freely across the country. These books were an important source for him to enjoy as a respite from the rigorous regimen of daily study and practice as a child without other outlets or companions. So it was that a lonely child dreaming of a life in the old days pursued those visions into adulthood, becoming an accomplished painter of aboriginals as well as one of Canada's most renowned and respected amateur archaeologists.


Archives, Glenbow Museum, Calgary

Archives, Moose Jaw Public Library

Cindy Flack. "casey Jones: Mortlach Artist and Archaeologist", Western People, Saskatoon 24th Sept 1981.

Joseph Houghton (1887-1959) Oral recollections.

Pohorecky, Zenon. "Saskatchewan People", Saskatoon (n.d.)

"Time to Remember: A History of Mortlach and District." regina, Brigden, 1983.

Urve Linnamae and Tim Jones, eds.. "Out of the Past" Saskatoon Archaeological Society, 1988.

May 31, 2016 | Village Office