Castles of Ida Grove
Ida Grove, Iowa
Far from the interstate in western Iowa, we expect to find attractions glorifying crops or livestock. We didn't expect to find a castle-turreted gate, flanked by knights in suits of armor, out by Highway 175.
We were baffled. Had we stumbled across the corporate headquarters of Medieval Times Dinner Theater? In the trees we could see more buildings with battlements, a huge castle garage with room to fit several side-by-side siege engines, and a lake in which floated what looked like a pirate ship.
We pulled off of the highway and into the small town of Ida Grove, its entrance protected by another castle tower. The town's shopping plaza looks like a castle, its newspaper office looks like a castle, and its roller skating rink looks like a castle. Matching pairs of mailed knights guard the turrets. Even a footbridge over a tiny creek on the golf course has been transformed into a medieval suspension bridge, with an imposing portcullis on either end.
It turns out that this out-of-place architecture was all the work of one man, Byron LeRoy Godbersen. Byron grew up as a poor farm boy about 25 miles from here, married his farm girl sweetheart, and went on to become a beefy multimillionaire inventor and industrialist. He liked western Iowa, and he liked castles, and since he was the most powerful man in Ida Grove, what he liked was what everyone else liked too.
Byron also liked evergreen trees. But there weren't enough evergreen trees in Ida Grove to suit Byron Godbersen, so he moved them here -- perhaps thousands of them, no one knows for sure -- from other parts of the country. He even designed his own giant tree spade to dig up the big ones that he wanted.
Byron's castle-building began with the gate that we saw out by the highway. It's the entrance to his private corporate chalet. It includes a lake that was dug out of a cornfield (and named for his wife), a candy-striped lighthouse, and, of course, a castle. He built the sprawling complex as a showplace to demonstrate his marine inventions, to wine and dine important business clients, and so he wouldn't have to leave Ida Grove.
Byron next had his employees build a half-scale replica of the H.M.S. Bounty to float in his eight-acre-lake. According to Godbersen lore, the ship was built without blueprints, based only on some MGM publicity stills from the 1962 "Mutiny on the Bounty" movie. Did Byron strut its decks at night channeling Fletcher Christian? Or Captain Bligh?
Next came the "Welcome Tower" out by the highway, and the shopping plaza and the skating rink. The local newspaper criticized Byron, so he bought the local shopper paper, turned it into a rival real newspaper, and built a castle for it as well -- and placed a boulder out front that's engraved, "Know the Truth" (The rival newspaper countered with "Tell the Truth," but it went out of business anyway). The bridge over the creek was built by Godbersen with the understanding that the Ida Grove Country Club would add two new holes to its golf course. The folks in town reportedly had a saying: "'Orlando has Disney World and we have Byron."
Back on Hwy 175, just west of the turnoff to town, is another Byron legacy -- a park with a cruise missile on a pole and a small cinder block building. Inside, barely visible through the dusty glass, are several awkwardly-posed showroom dummies in military fatigues. They are the surviving remnants of Byron Godbersen's contribution to the Bicentennial: a once-magnificent three-ton replica of the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima. Commemorative placemats were produced at the time, placing a photograph of the original side-by-side with a photo of the replica, to show what a good job Byron had done.
Byron Godbersen's last big project was Lake LaJune Estates, built across the highway from his half-size Bounty. It's a 290-acre spread that contains Godbersen's private castle, up on a hill, with its own moat and drawbridge. He was a driven man, proud that he was back at work only eleven days after triple-bypass surgery. But he was only human, and not even his many battlements could forestall mortality. Byron Godbersen went to his castle in the sky in 2003, warmly eulogized by everyone who knew him. But there probably won't be any more castles built in Ida Grove.