As a boy growing up in Northfield, Minn., Jim Machacek couldn't resist the sights and sounds of the local rail yard.

By 14, he'd become such a regular at the downtown depot that engineers let him run a steam engine up and down the tracks.

The experience fueled a passion that lasted a lifetime. Over the next seven decades, Machacek collected railroad memorabilia, studied train history and built his own railroad in the backyard of his home near St. Olaf College, where he'd give rides to friends and neighbors.

"People would hear the whistle blow and they'd come out," said one of his sons, Dave Machacek. "It was really festive. It was a lot of fun, smelling the oil and the steam in the air and hearing the whistle."

Jim Machacek, a life-long resident of Northfield, died on June 22 of congestive heart failure. He was 81.

Clark Webster, a fellow railroad buff and longtime friend, said Machacek often told the story of how he was around the rail yard so much, the foreman called his mother to make sure it was OK.

"He just had a real passion for trains," Webster said.

Dave Machacek said that over nearly 40 years his father gave more than 50,000 rides on his backyard train, a Czechoslovakian-built World War II industrial steam engine that he bought in 1964 without telling his wife.

"And he never sold tickets or anything," he said. "He just did it because he loved to do it."

Machacek stored the engine in a large shop on his property. He also used the space to work on cars and store collectibles from railroad signs to switch logs, lanterns and bells.

"Because he was a mechanical guy and good with engineering things, all that stuff became second nature to him," Dave Machacek said.

Machacek, an honor student and football and track athlete, graduated from Northfield High School in 1949. He later earned an engineering degree at the University of New Mexico before returning to his hometown to work at the local foundry started by his grandfather and father.

In 1964, he founded Northfield Equipment and Manufacturing, which quickly became a leading manufacturer of specialized conveyors for the frozen food industry.

"He was an innovator, an inventor," said Van Miller, a longtime friend. "He was really mechanically inclined."

When his sons took up hockey, Machacek helped lead the effort to build Northfield's first indoor hockey arena, which paved the way to start the local high school varsity program.

The annual Northfield Hockey Association volunteer of the year award is named in his honor.

"He didn't have the lake cabin and he didn't go on many fancy trips," his son, Dave, said. "He was satisfied just doing his own thing around here. He was a real 'get 'er done' kind of guy."

Machacek was preceded in death by his wife, Marilyn; his brother, Charles; and his parents, George and Antoinette (Proshek). He is survived by his son Charles and wife Helen Hughes of Plano, Texas; son David and wife Kari Alberg of Northfield; son Brian of Northfield; grandaughter Margaret Hughes; and sister-in-law Laura.

Service and interment will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Oaklawn Cemetery in Northfield. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to the Northfield Hockey Association.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425