Robert K. Casavant: Buff & Buff Machinist meets Brinks Bandits

Based on an Interview with Robert K. Casavant in Wrentham, Massachusetts on December 5, 2008

Robert K. Casavant in his home in Wrentham, MA, December 2008. Photograph by Peter O’Brien.

Robert K. Casavant in his home in Wrentham, MA, December 2008. Photograph by Peter O’Brien.

Bob Casavant’s working life in Jamaica Plain saw him grow from a skilled machinist at Buff & Buff Manufacturing Company to a prize-winning antique automobile restoration expert. Along the way he managed to meet two of the 20th century’s most notorious, and somewhat romanticized, bandits when he souped-up their cars. His automotive skills were so good he escaped a law enforcement stakeout when he borrowed one of the modified cars, a 1951 Mercury, for a “test drive.”

Robert K. Casavant was born October 30, 1922 at Richford Vt., near the Canadian border. At age three he moved to Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Street and then; moving often due to the rental market, to Germania Street, Rossmore Road, Orange Street, Roslindale, and Kingsbury and Kensington Streets in Roxbury. He attended the Lewis Grammar School in Roxbury and Boston Trade High School, graduating from the automotive course in 1938. He returned to Trade to take night courses in machine shop where he learned the skills that he would bring to his first job rebuilding carburetors for a firm in Brookline. In 1941, at 18, he married Helen Boudreau of Back Bay and the first of their two children was born a year later.

Bob joined Buff & Buff (B&B) as a machinist in 1941. His pay, considerably less than a dollar an hour, saw an unheard of raise of 15 cents an hour in a very short time after he was able to demonstrate that his production of “Centers” exceeded nearly all other machinists’ output. Centers; basically finely machined brass rods, were located in the innards of tripod-mounted surveying instruments called Transits, Theodolites and Levels which B&B manufactured. The Centers allowed the instruments to remain perfectly level when the telescopes were swung to take readings in different directions. He produced these brass Centers on a 48-inch bench lathe with a six-inch swing. All the lathes in the B&B shop were driven from revolving shafts at ceiling height which were powered from a central power source. Pulleys were located along the shafts above each lathe. Leather belts connected the pulleys above to each of the lathes below. Each lathe operator could control the speed of his lathe by shifting the belt to different positions on his lathe’s pulley. This would have been the standard arrangement of any machine shop of the period.

Bob’s workbench was on the second floor in the back of the B&B building at 329 Rear Lamartine Street. A window at his lathe overlooked the Bowditch Schoolyard. The school was located around the corner at 80-82 Green Street. His fellow machinist was Hayden Harris who lived next door to B&B. Harris’s father was also employed by B&B as a janitor. Another friend of Bob’s, Joseph Rose, worked for a short time in the Optics Department of B&B.

Bob’s foreman and mentor at B&B was Carl Wiedemann of 500 Beech Street, Roslindale. Carl trained him so well that he was quickly able to significantly increase his production and earn the large pay raise mentioned earlier.

While Bob never met any of the upper management of the company, their regular visits to his work area are remembered as times when all the worker’s eyes were on the work spinning on the lathes. The work ethic at B&B was all business, all the time.

Bob worked at B&B until 1942, leaving for a welder’s job paying a dollar an hour at the Boston Navy Yard. The WWII war effort was opening high paying jobs everywhere. With a young family already started, he had no choice but to leave for the higher pay in war work. His tenure at B&B was about two years.

Following his Army service from 1943 – 1945 in England and France, Bob found work on construction equipment, ships, trucks and cars as a mechanic at Franklin Field Motors, 972 Blue Hill Ave, Dorchester. He developed outstanding skills as a diesel mechanic and his uncanny ability to quickly and correctly diagnose diesel engine problems kept him very busy, often traveling far from home to get a broken down crane or commercial fishing boat back in business. However, his conscientious efforts to repair customer’s equipment as fast as possible often clashed with the shop owner’s desire to maximize the hours spent on a particular job. Bob didn’t like that business philosophy so he left to work on his own.

From about 1950 until 1955, Bob was partnered with Fred Sieve at Fred’s Auto Repair at 3042A Washington Street near the Donnelly Electric & Manufacturing shop and just a short way from the Egleston Square Elevated Railway Station. The “elevated” rattled along above Washington Street casting a shadow on everything below it for 80 years.

It was at Fred’s Auto that Bob got to know two of the notorious Brinks robbers; Joe McGinnis who owned the nearby Egleston Wine and Liquor Store at 3086 Washington Street on the corner of Seaver Street, and Joe “Specky” O’Keefe who was later turned by the FBI and testified against the other eight masked and peacoated Brinks robbers. (These two were played by Peter Boyle and Warren Oates respectively in the 1978 movie “The Brinks Job” starring Peter Falk.) O’Keefe was a neighbor as well as a customer at Fred’s Auto.

McGinnis did some “business” from time to time in Rhode Island and he was interested, for unknown reasons, in increasing the speed of his ‘51 Mercury. Bob, with his considerable automotive skills, was able to do just that. Soon, O’Keefe wanted his Pontiac beefed-up too and Bob obliged him as well. In an amusing testament to his ability to get more power out of standard car engines, Bob recalls that one day shortly after the Brinks heist on January 17, 1950, an obvious law enforcement team was staking out the parking lot shared by Fred’s shop. They were undoubtedly watching McGinnis and O’Keefe who were suspects in the “crime of the century,” as it was then known. Bob decided to take McGinnis’s Mercury out for a “test drive” and the cops, recognizing the McGinnis car, immediately gave chase. Within three blocks the powerfully modified Mercury easily outran the stakeout car. Bob knew engines.

In the 1960’s Bob went to work as a mechanic on heavy equipment, ships, cranes etc. for Atlantic Equipment Company of Hyde Park, MA. traveling all over New England to service distressed equipment. He left Atlantic and joined Dino Buick in Stoughton, MA. He finished his working years as a truck mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service and retired in 1985.

In 1960 Bob became interested in antique automobiles and for the next 40 years enjoyed the hobby of restoring and rebuilding some beautiful prize winning antique cars. While no longer able to do the work required to restore the beautiful old cars, Bob still enjoys reading about younger men who preserve the grand old automobiles of another era.

by Peter O’Brien, December, 2008