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Another Forsyth saga

For nearly 40 years, the Forsyth family acted as legal representative for the City of Estherville. That era came to an end this week.

August 2, 2013
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville Daily News

Tales. That's what you get from Gordon and David Forsyth, the father-and-son legal team that acted as Estherville's city attorney from Jan. 8, 1974 to this July 31.

Gordon likes to tell a good story - as does David. They're colorful stories, often fabulistic tableaus of Estherville's past that blend like threads into what the city is today.

Originally from Colfax, a town smaller than Estherville and east of Des Moines, Gordon went to law school at the University of Iowa then found himself in Estherville in 1954. Estherville was booming then, with some of the highest-paying factory jobs in the Midwest then - probably the country.

Article Photos

David and Gordon Forsyth with a plaque presented to their law firm which has served the City of Estherville for nearly 40 years.
Photo by Michael Tidemann

Gordon served two terms as county attorney then settled into the typical general law for which small-town lawyers are known - probate, estate planning, real estate - whatever was necessary to serve the people of Estherville and Emmet County.

After practicing here for 20 years, the city approached him about an upcoming city attorney opening. So he took it.

Things went pretty well - for a while, anyway. Then came the farm crisis of the 80s and the closing of the Morrell's beef operation followed a few years later with the closing of the pork side.

Estherville was shaken to its core.

David, too, remembers Estherville before Morrell's left. He remembers five department stores, two shoe stores, two dimes stores and a hoard of neighborhood groceries like Black's, Brengle's, Mortimer's.

It was when David was in a department store after the Morrell's closing that he decided that he wanted to follow his father into the practice of law.

"I might as well," he figured, his wife Marcia encouraging him. David already had a degree from Minnesota State. Three more years, he figured. What the heck.

"Back in my mind, I decided I wanted to go to law school."

He was 28 years old and looking around him at what appeared to be rapidly becoming a wasteland - a formerly booming town with a hundred empty houses. The change was profound. Until then, John Morrell employees were "perhaps the highest-paid processors in the world," said David. A laborer on the kill floor made more than the state archaeologist who held a PhD. City property values plummeted.

The city had some aces up its sleeve, though.

Before the plant closings, Morrell's had a contract with the city to meet its obligations toward helping pay for a new waste treatment plant. The city held the company's feet to the fire so the plant was finished. David recalled that former city administrator Steve Woodley said the updated plant could support a community of 75,000.

Gordon said Estherville was one of the first Iowa communities to use Tax Increment Financing which was based on a community's unemployment, something Estherville had a lot of with one in five jobs lost.

With TIF financing other incentives like breaks on utilities, Estherville was able to start to turn things around.

David said the first project was demolishing the abandoned Morrell's site and locating Fareway to its current location. Other TIF projects included GKN and the industrial park. Gordon said his most rewarding experience as city attorney was being able to keep unemployment fairly low when jobs were being lost around the country.

Then came the Regional Wellness Center, a major library expansion, a new track at the high school and practically a new hospital.

"The people in the community have invested a lot in the community," David said, giving the city council a lot of the credit.

"They were fantastic people to work with over the years," said David.

With Gordon pretty much retired, David has handled city attorney duties for about the past four or five years. Effective July 1, he's taking the judicial magistrate's position from which Judge John Kauer is retiring.

Since the magistrate's position is part-time, David will continue with his private practice. However, he said he had to resign as city attorney since there would have been inherent conflicts since the magistrate rules on cases prosecuted under city code.

And David's sister Priscilla has also followed the family profession as an immigration lawyer in Sioux City.

"It's been a lot of fun to work with the city," said David. "Now the city's in very good hands."



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