IDA GROVE, Iowa -- Ronnie Ladwig returned from a two-day delivery trip to northern Wisconsin, (1,000-plus miles round-trip) late Thursday. On Friday, he poured concreted in Ida Grove, the hometown he's been building in -- and crowing about -- for 68 years.
In between work efforts in the special projects realm for Midwest Industry, Ladwig's employer for nearly 50 years, he took a break to show off the 16-foot cedar wheel he crafted to serve as a focal point for the entry at Lake La June, an eight-acre body of water whose construction was directed by the late Byron Godbersen, founder and force behind Midwest Industry, and much of Ida Grove, a half-century ago.
Before tackling the specs of this captain's wheel, let's back up the ship (or the story) to let Ladwig say how he got here.
"After high school, I had a job for a short time in carpentry," he said. "I was working with a guy and he said we should go check out Midwest because they were hiring at the time and paying $1.25 per hour!"
Ladwig was making $1 per hour while filling rat holes for the popcorn company in nearby Schaller. Curious and industrious he stopped by Midwest to see about a job. A foreman put him at a station where he spent days drilling 1/8-inch holes in a 6-inch pin. Three days, to be exact.
"It was boring," he said with a laugh. "I didn't think I'd last three days."
A supervisor noticed his discontent and asked Ladwig if he'd try welding. Ladwig did. He took a test, passed it and spent the next three years welding for Midwest. When a construction job opened at the plant, he threw his name in and earned the position.
"I got to help build additions to the plant and all sorts of projects," he said. "Eventually, I became construction supervisor."
Thirty years ago, Ladwig moved into Midwest's "special projects" position and he's been there ever since. Recently, the role had him executing the creation of a cedar ship's wheel at the entrance of Lake La June, an entrance that leads to the Hangar, the Chalet and the Bounty, a touristy boat on Lake La June, a boat where, for years, Ida Grove High School senior classes posed for their class picture.
"I held pieces of the original wheel when it was built in 1972," Ladwig said, noting how the original was based on a sketch by Wally Hanson. Ray Williams did the turnings for the first wheel, one made of Douglas Fir.
Mother Nature and Father Time wore down the original, causing the wood to rot, causing a piece to break off. When it was decided this fall to replace the wheel, Ladwig served as...well...captain for the project.
"They wanted me to fix it at first, but there was no fixing it," he said. "The old one went to the burn pile."
Ladwig ordered special cedar for the new wheel as he wished there to be minimal knots. Cedar, he said, is a soft wood, something needed for the turnings, which he had to do. "I made a lathe to turn these as we didn't have one big enough," Ladwig said as he glanced toward the top of Ida Grove's newest welcome prop.
The wheel turns, if only a bit, moving on a 3.5-inch pipe that sticks out from the stone structure upon which the wheel is set. A forklift and three men were used to put the 1-ton object in place.
The wheel helps set the ambiance at Lake La June, the body of water dedicated on July 4, 1969 after Byron Godbersen decided to develop demonstration facilities for the Midwest line of Shore-Station Marine products. In addition to the Chalet, the Bounty and the Hangar, there is a runway Godbersen's crew constructed.
Four years after Lake La June was dedicated, Byron Godbersen was named United States Small Businessman of the Year. A member of the Iowa Inventors' Hall of Fame, Godbersen, a World War II paratrooper, died in 2003.
"Byron would be very tickled with this," Ladwig said of the longevity of the first wheel and the looks of its successor. "This was something he liked."