A creative inventor
The late Albert Callens was known as a problem-solver and one who liked inventing machines to make work more efficient. He may be gone, but his agricultural inventions will live on.
The late Albert Callens loved to make people’s dreams come true through his blacksmith skills.
When swathers were first on the market, farmers couldn’t afford them, son George said. They also had perfectly good binders that were getting behind-the-times. So, Callens took grain binders and turned them into swathers. Farmers flocked to get these made.
“In some ways, his were better, more rugged, than those on the market,” George said. “It wasn’t long before the manufacturers were making their swathers closer to the style Dad used.”
Callens also created jigs so he could build trailers rapidly and with the least amount of effort. It was like an assembly line process that was easily utilized by one person, George said.
“And Dad invented a cam system to be used on trailers he built with dump beds,” he said. “The cam kept the system from jiggling and rattling when you drove down the road.”
When Callens opened his shop on Main Street, Canby, he concentrated on blacksmithing that solved problems. There were already two or three blacksmiths in town, his daughter Virginia Gregg said, and he was told there wasn’t enough work for another blacksmith. The competition would eat him up.
“I don’t think so,” she remembered her dad saying. “I will do what they are not doing, and we’ll work together.”
“And that is exactly what happened,” Gregg said. “He not only made new parts for more efficient equipment, he also streamlined the work process and could get good work done fast.”
Virginia remembers helping her father in his blacksmith shop. She said he was as handy as a carpenter as he was as a blacksmith.
“He had built a living room and bedroom on to the shop and made a kitchen out of one of the shop’s front rooms,” she said. “Then he created work stations and had overhead doors added for his business. I was only 1-1/2 years old when we moved to the farm, but I recall areas of the place for which there are no pictures. He said the descriptions were quite accurate. I think I remembered because he said he would carry us around and show us things and explain them long before we could walk or talk. He was embedding into us his way of combining logic and creativity as soon as he could get us out of Mom’s arms.”
The children began to think of their father’s ability to create innovative inventions was normal.
“He had so many shortcut inventions that they became common place for us,” George said. “We thought they were the norm. It was only when others made remarks about them that we really took notice.”
“We are more impressed now than we were at the time,” Virginia said. “Inventions were just a part of life for us. He’d encourage us to ‘figure it out and make it yourself. It’ll be better that way.’ When we were quite young, we wanted a go-cart. I’m sure Dad was instrumental in the fact that we built our own from some old motor, scraps of wood, salvaged wheels, et cetera. It was complete with foot pedals for turning left and right.”
When the Callens kids watched home movies of the go-cart in action, they were surprised that their pride and joy was so slow that the dog was running circles around it when they rode it.
“Our next model was an improvement,” Virginia said.
The Callens children grew up to work with tools. Rick was a shop teacher, Virginia has her own welder and tools, which she learned to use from her father, and Remi has done some metal work — winning prizes and notoriety as well as obtaining a patent for his addition to hedge trimmers. Rick’s daughter, Breezy, inherited Callens’ enviable old anvil and has done creative work with it.
“Dad had to eventually quit his intense blacksmith work because the hours, smoke and heat were taking their toll on him,” Virginia said. “So, he changed careers and bought a farm (southwest of Taunton in 1953). He continued doing blacksmith work as needed while on the farm. He made improvements and repairs on his own equipment and for other people. Later, when he began serious work for patents, he built his own prototypes for his inventions and his grandson, Jack Callens, videotaped them in action as part of the patent and marketing process.”
Two of the patented ag-related items he made while on the farm were a special hinge and a skid steer loader adapter that folded away.
“His work was aimed at major manufacturers and a focused target audience,” Virginia said. “He was working to find markets or a savvy marketer for his invention, but his joy was taking the project from need to concept to creation.”
Another of Callens’ inventions, a drill press, won first place at the Minnesota Inventors Congress one year.
She added that her father’s mindset and process was in “doing what ya gotta do” in the face of unfounded opposition.
“We make things work the way we want them to work, or make a completely new ‘something’ if what we need doesn’t exist,” Virginia said. “We’ve taken Dad and Mom as examples not only for physical things, but for music, written works, creativity and just plain critical thinking.”
This also applied to a time when Virginia had learned competency-based education at Marshall’s Southwest State University and introduced it to her classes.
“The faculty and administration were unsure of its value,” she said, “but it has served me well as a teacher.”
Related to farming was how Callens approached a legal matter during the 1980s when farmers were experiencing financial crises.
Callens hired a lawyer, George said, and told him what he wanted done. The lawyer researched and told Callens it was impossible.
“Dad became irritated and told the lawyer that he wasn’t paying him to be told it couldn’t be done; he was paying him to figure out how to do it,” George said. “Dad then did legal research on his own and walked the lawyer through what needed to be done. Dad told the lawyer ‘this is what needs to be done and these are the means to accomplish it. You now need to figure out how to make it legal.'”
The lawyer successfully followed through and later told Callens he had learned a lot about law and how to interpret and utilize it from him.
“Dad did save his farms and the lawyer went on to use many of the same techniques to help other farmers,” George said.
“After that, Dad was contracted by a government program to serve as a consultant to other farmers in dire straits for various reasons,” Virginia said. “After that program ran out, Dad was contracted by Lutheran Social Services to do similar work.”
Callens was so discreet, his family didn’t even know he was doing this type of work. To this day they do not know which farmers he served, she said.
As Virginia put it, maybe Albert Callens’ greatest invention, which all his children use, was his method of using his mind, logic and creativity to improve life.
Albert Callens died on Aug. 6, but he will long be remembered as a creative inventor and active thinker.