April 12, 2017
I have lived the vast majority of my life in what is known as the humid continental climate. Among its features is a great variability. Sixteen of my years were in Iowa, where that characteristic is extremely evident, especially in the spring. Yet I don’t think I was prepared for the changes that have occurred in Iowa during the first half of this week.
On Sunday there was a record high temperature of 77 degrees, accompanied by a strong southerly wind and achieved late in the afternoon once a layer of high clouds burned off. Twenty-four hours later the temperature was 40 degrees lower at 37, with a raw, damp northwest breeze that brought the wind chill below freezing. If timing is everything, I won it all, choosing to ride on Sunday and taking Monday off. Sunday’s attire was cycling shorts and a summer jersey, while Monday’s was jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and my windbreaker/rain jacket, yet still I was severely chilled when I made my one excursion from my motel in Denison, Iowa, and walked the half-mile into town to find a late lunch (unfortunately not very good Chinese food). The rest of the time I occupied myself writing my last blog entry with the thermostat turned up to the low 70s.
Tuesday was yet another day altogether. The clouds lifted, high pressure returned and the temperature plunged to an early morning low of 27 degrees, with considerable frost. But the sun burned brightly, and by the time of my departure at 10:00 it was already back into the mid-40s. Properly dressed (modern high-tech fabrics are something of a minor miracle), and with some solar heating, it can be quite pleasant, especially since the wind was light and out of the west (a crosswind). The terrain was typical of Western Iowa: rolling hills with long contours, about one every two miles, that make for reasonable cycling. My 26-mile ride—short days are a pleasure— from Denison to Ida Grove, Iowa, took about three hours, including lunch at a tavern in the small town of Schleswig.
Schleswig is memorable to me for two reasons. The first is what probably is the worst day in the 44 years of RAGBRAI, known universally to riders as “Soggy Monday.” It was 1981, and the route was 61 miles through Western Iowa. It started raining hard about 7:00 am and continued until 3:30. The rain fell in sheets, the headwind picked up to a steady 20-25 mph out of the east, and the temperature fell to 49 degrees—at the end of July. The terrain was hilly. Riders were soaked, cold and miserable in a matter of minutes. I recall riding as hard as I could, just to try to generate enough heat to avoid hypothermia. Schleswig was the first town, 18 miles from the starting point. The restaurant there was so packed with chilly cyclists, both seated and standing, that servers were unable to make their way to the tables. When I emerged back outside into the continuing rain, a young woman was staring at her wet bicycle and crying. “Why didn’t somebody steal it,” she sobbed, “so I wouldn’t have to ride!” In an action equivalent to the evacuation of Dunkirk, local residents mobilized a fleet of vehicles: pickups, campers, vans, cattle trailers, whatever had a motor and would roll, in order to ferry bicyclists to the ending town. The estimate is that of the 3000 riders who began the day, fewer than 500 finished under their own power. I was one of them.
My other memory of Schleswig is considerably more benign. The town was settled by German immigrants who have kept their traditions over the years, including making their own beer and wine. They sponsor an annual fall festival that includes a beer and winemaking contest. The last year I lived in Des Moines, I entered the competition with a braggot. Braggot is a hybrid of light beer and mead (honey wine), fruity and pleasant and dry (contrary to what many people think, honey is extremely fermentable and finishes dry unless extraordinary measures are taken). It ended up winning the best-of-show award, the only time I’ve done so in a competition. For a year I was in possession of an inscribed scepter, the traveling prize awarded to the winner.
Today’s weather is yet different again. The temperature will warm into the low 60s, but spotty showers are also forecast. Fortunately, I have another day off in Ida Grove, so I will stay mostly dry. In terms of the climate in Iowa in April, there’s never a dull moment.
Ida Grove (population 2140) is proof that a couple of people can have a huge influence on a small town. In this case it was the Godberson brothers, two Iowa farm boys who were good with machinery. Harold, the older and less assuming of the two, who died in 1986, went into road construction and then founded a company to make concrete paving equipment that is now sold all over the world. The librarian at the Ida Grove Public Library related a story told by her grandmother who went to school with Harold. It seems that in the early grades all he wanted to do in school was build structures out of blocks, earning him the name “Blockhead.” Perhaps this mild form of bullying was what propelled him to success.
Younger brother Byron Godberson was more dynamic, bordering on the flamboyant. He had an interest in both boats and airplanes; the company he founded is a large manufacturer of boat trailers and hoists. He also had an interest in building scale models. During the 1980s and 1990s his Byron Originals were among the best radio controlled model airplane kits available. He also built large-scale replicas and staged an annual event that reenacted the air and naval battles of World War II, of which he was a veteran. One year his staging of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima by a one-fifth-scale replica of a B-29 drew a letter from the Japanese Embassy.
Byron had a fascination with medieval architecture and castles. In the late 1960s, he began decorating the exterior of his factories and businesses with a castle motif that has been repeated throughout Ida Grove. The newspaper, which he bought, looks like a medieval fortress. The shopping center features balustrades and parapets. The private lake he built as the setting for his corporate chalet and his families’ homes is dotted with citadels and chateaux in the same style. As local residents used to say, “Orlando has Disney, we have Byron.”
The most imposing of the castles is the Skate Palace, a roller skating rink and events center built by Byron Godberson in 1982 and donated to the town. Now owned by the local chapter of the American Legion, it continues to serve as a venue for skating in the fall and winter, and for weddings, proms and group meetings (up to 850 people) throughout the rest of the year. There is really nothing else like it in Iowa—or elsewhere, at least in my travels.
I was given a tour of the Skate Palace by current manager Shelia Redenius. “We’re real proud of this,” she says. “It gives the whole town a place to come,” as well as occasional busloads of tourists from as far away as neighboring states. “It’s helped put Ida Grove on the map.”
I asked her if there was any opposition to the castles while they were being built. “No, not really,” she answered. “Byron had done so much for the town that if it was good for him, we thought it would be good for us.” While the Godberson children and grandchildren still participate in running the businesses, none is as dynamic and forceful as their forbearer. The last castle was built just prior to Byron Godberson’s death in 2003, and there is some question as to how long Ida Grove can continue to trade on its reputation as “Castle Town.”
Iowa is a leader in wind energy, producing some 30 percent of its electricity this way, more than any other U.S. state:
The defining motif of “Castle Town,” Ida Grove, Iowa:
The entrance to the executive homes inventor, industrialist and town benefactor Byron Godberson built in Ida Grove, Iowa:
The most unusual Pizza Hut I have ever seen, featuring its own “moat” and fishing dock:
The Skate Palace in Ida Grove, like no other roller skating rink:
Inside the opulent Skate Palace: