B.L. Gustafson: Adept with Horses and Horsepower
By Douglas Towne
After World War II, a Phoenix contractor became renowned for his talent moving materials and building highways across the state during Arizona's boom years. Buford Leon “Gus” Gustafson founded and owned a well-known construction company bearing his name. Although Gustafson was a gifted businessman, he might have been happier as a cowboy instead of a contractor, as he seemed most content in the saddle with a pooch at his side.
“Gus loved horses and dogs, and had lots of them,” Mary Head, his adopted daughter, says. “But he couldn’t stand cats." She goes on to say that he could be a tough man to work for on a project. "Once he got mad at you, he stayed mad at you.” Still, people remember Gustafson fondly as one of the industry’s more memorable pioneers.
Gustafson grew up in the farming town of Clarkfield, located in the prairie of southwest Minnesota. He was born in 1905 and started providing for his family at a young age. "He never went past third grade and was working by the time he was 14. And he continued the rest of his life,” Head says. “His first job was carrying buckets of water to give workers a drink.”
At some point, Gustafson married his first wife, Van, and moved to California. He had many jobs, including working on Hoover Dam, but he soon became his own boss.
“Gustafson told me he started in the business after one of the California earthquakes,” says Shane Dikoff, president of Shane’s Grading & Paving Service, Inc. “He purchased a bobtail truck and loaded it by hand, taking several loads of the rubble each day to the dump. He decided to move to Phoenix around 1935 and had one of the biggest trucking companies in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Van Gustafson next to a billboard announcing her husband was the contractor for an 8-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 87, 1951. Credit- Mary Head
In Phoenix, Gustafson founded B.L. Gustafson Construction. “Nothing Too Big or Too Small: Just Give Us a call" was its advertising jingle.
Gustafson and his wife lived on a 10-acre homestead at Campbell Avenue and 16th Street, raising horses and chickens. At the time, the area was located out in the country. “I recall one day a huge snake swallowed a chicken, and Gus went out, sliced the snake open and pulled out the bird that was still alive,” Head says.
In 1945, Gustafson adopted a burro named "Minnie." According to an article in The Arizona Republic in 1970, Minnie was abandoned after a career herding sheep in an unfenced, mile-square area between Indian School and Camelback roads and 16th and 24th streets. Gustafson's show horses shared an irrigated field with Minnie. "I learned to bray from Minnie, and she would come running when I did," Head says.
Trucks for B.L. Gustafson being fitted with new dump beds at Fruehauf Trailer Co., 1941. Credit- Mary Head
Gustafson’s equestrian passion drove him to help upgrade the Murphy Bridle Path along Central Avenue in Phoenix. In 1948, he organized the 16th Annual Phoenix Horse Show at the Arizona Biltmore Stables, which drew 5,000 spectators. Future Arizona Governor Howard Pyle served as the show's announcer. The Gustafsons were involved in the event as representatives of the Arizona Horse Lovers Club; Gus was president, and Van served as secretary-treasurer.
But Gustafson’s horseback riding days came to an abrupt end during a rodeo parade in the late-1950s. “Gus was hurt riding with the Maricopa Sheriff’s posse,” Head says. “His horse reared up and fell on him, crushed his pelvis. He didn’t ride much after that.”
His company, B.L. Gustafson Construction, however, continued to thrive, building and resurfacing highways across Arizona. The secret to Gustafson’s contracting success? “He was the best," Bob Gustafson, his nephew, declares. “He could look at a piece of property and know exactly how much it would cost to build a road through it.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Sept/Oct 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 5.