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Byron Godbersen, 78; Inventor and Entrepreneur

May 15, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Byron Godbersen, inventor and entrepreneur who followed his heart's desire -- building farm and boating equipment, pricey model planes and medieval castles with moats -- and made the money to do it, has died. He was 78.

Godbersen, who had been in declining health for the last decade, died Sunday at his home in Ida Grove, Iowa, of natural causes.

A self-made man born on a farm on the western Iowa plains, he grew up shoveling corn off wagons. In the late 1950s, he became a passionate boating enthusiast and a couple of decades after that he took a fancy to remote-controlled model airplanes. Along the way, he went to Europe and discovered old castles with towers, turrets and knights standing guard.

Little Ida Grove, Iowa, has never been the same since.

Godbersen's dreams produced two companies, Midwest Industries in 1954 and Byron Originals in 1976, castle-shaped manufacturing plants, shopping complexes, a roller-skating rink, library, newspaper office and his own mansion. Not to mention the half-scale replica of the HMS Bounty floating on an eight-acre, man-made lake and, for many years, a 26-minute pint-sized but ordnance-enhanced reenactment of the 26-day Battle of Iwo Jima from World War II.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Godbersen obituary -- An obituary of inventor Byron Godbersen in Thursday's California section incorrectly stated that the mutiny on the Bounty occurred in the 19th century. The year was 1789, in the 18th century.

The man behind it all earned not only a fortune, but more than 50 patents, designation as Iowa small businessman of the year in 1973, induction into the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame in 1996, and the National Marine Manufacturers Assn. award for lifetime contributions to the industry in 1999. He also earned the gratitude of millions of grain farmers, boaters, model plane enthusiasts and, despite his unusual taste in architecture, most of his neighbors.

"He did everything all the way, a top-of-the-liner," Ida Grove Mayor Dennis Ernst told the Des Moines Register. "He's going to be dearly missed."

After serving as a paratrooper in the Pacific theater during World War II, Godbersen returned to the family farm near Mapleton, Iowa, and pondered how to ease the aching muscles that shoveling corn produced. He invented the Bolster Hoist, a hydraulic under-body hoist that could raise heavily loaded wagons to dump grain into storage or shipping bins.

Following his late brother and fellow entrepreneur, Harold, to Ida Grove 60 miles or so southeast of Sioux City, Godbersen set up Midwest Industries to build the hoists. He later added tilling equipment and other machinery.

Vacationing at his home on a Minnesota lake in the late 1950s, the new recreational boater set out to make that easier too. He sketched what became his ShoreStation Boat Hoist, an adaptation of the hydraulic wagon lifter. After introducing the new device at the 1959 Minneapolis boat show, he soon made it the industry standard.

In 1971, Godbersen patented a user-friendly lift for boat trailers, and by 1998 his company was building and selling more than 1 million boat trailers annually. That year Godbersen, who continued sketching ideas on napkins until near his death, also introduced a modular dock.

The boating equipment required a place to test it, so in 1969 Godbersen built eight-acre Lake LaJune (named for his wife) in a cornfield beside his Midwest plant. A year later he had his employees build the small version of the HMS Bounty, a historic ship taken over by mutineers in the 19th century.

Gradually turning his town's commercial landscape into something of a Midwestern Camelot with turrets, moats, flying buttresses and ornate balustrades, Godbersen also built a mock-castle to house the second weekly paper, the Ida County Courier, that he decided the town needed in 1975. Like his factories, the newspaper was designed to look ancient on the outside, but given state-of-the-art equipment inside.

For recreational purposes, the philanthropic Godbersen had already given Ida Grove a medieval suspension bridge and turreted clubhouse for the country club and its golf course. His Skate Palace, now owned and operated by the American Legion, is so ornate and picturesque that it is used for weddings and dances as well as roller-skating.

In 1976, he found a new toy: remote controlled model airplanes that can cost from $1,000 to $30,000. He didn't like what was on the market, so he created his second company, Byron Originals, to make better planes and accessories.

To demonstrate what he built, he established Byron's Aviation Expo in 1982. His air show featured the reenactment of the epic Iwo Jima battle, featuring not only airplanes and tanks but scale-model, 40-yard-long aircraft carriers, all built by his employees.

"I'm a patriot," Godbersen told Forbes magazine in 1991. "I believe in America and what America stands for. I think this show does arouse some patriotism in the hearts and minds of a lot of people, and that's excellent."

The annual air show became so successful that it outgrew Ida Grove and was sold and renamed the Des Moines Aviation Expo in 1993.

Godbersen's companies, run by his offspring, remain in Ida Grove.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, LaJune; one son, Bruce; four daughters, Beverly Corr, Susan Rusch, Linda Harriman and Debra Brosius; a sister, Berniece Pruehs; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

They all live in Ida Grove.

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