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Bobcat pioneer Keller dies at 87

Louis Keller, a self-taught tinkerer who helped invent the loader that made Bobcat a household name, died on Sunday at age 87.

Keller and his 88-year-old brother, Cyril Keller, were the inventors who built the original, three-wheel, self-propelled loader designed to ease manure removal for an area turkey grower.

The machine made by the brothers in the blacksmith shop they owned in Rothsay, Minn., more than 50 years ago was the foundation for the wide expansion of Bobcat, North Dakota's largest manufacturer.

"He never dreamed it would go that way," said Marilyn Loegering, one of Keller's 10 children.

Loegering and Joe Keller, Louis' son, recalled their father as a determined and relentless inventor, a man who relished solving problems in a welding shop.

Joe Keller said his father invented most of his life. A decade before the brothers sold the rights to their new loader to Melroe Manufacturing Co. in 1958, Keller built a rotary snowblower his son said was the first of its kind. Years later, he designed steel tracks to circle the rubber tires on a Bobcat, an idea that'd been abandoned by others due to issues with mud and slippage, Joe Keller said.

"The ones he enjoyed the most were the ones that people said couldn't be done," he said of his dad's inventions.

The Keller brothers had no formal education past the eighth grade, but Louis Keller said in a 2003 Prairie Public documentary that math came easy to him. "I could figure out in my head so many things," he said.

"They don't have the big degrees, the diplomas and papers," Loegering said of her father and uncle. "They could just do it."

When Bobcat was still getting off the ground, the Keller brothers were hired by Melroe, the company to which it sold manufacturing rights. Cyril traveled across the country drumming up business for the loaders while Louis stayed in the shop, tweaking and perfecting the design.

Cyril Keller said Monday that he would discuss technical issues with Louis only, lest he confuse all the better-educated workers in the engineering department.

"An engineer couldn't understand what I was talking about because I couldn't talk their language," he said. "We worked quite well together."

Keller had suffered from prostate cancer for about a year before passing Sunday around 10 p.m., his son said. Services will be arranged by Lisko Funeral Chapel in Edgeley, N.D., where Keller was living.

Born in 1923, Keller absorbed much about machinery helping his dad fix his farming equipment. During World War II, Louis put that knowledge to work in the U.S. Army, repairing tanks and jeeps.

Joe Keller said his father was a devout Catholic who "liked to do things the way God wanted" and was the patriarch of a large family - so large that Joe's fallen behind on the exact number of grandchildren.

"I just know that my son is his 40th grandchild," he said.

Bobcat, which was sold to a South Korean company in 2007, now employs more than 1,700 people, roughly three-quarters who work in Gwinner, N.D., where the loaders were first made. More than 750,000 Bobcat skid-steer loaders had been produced as of 2008.

Jeff Anderson, economic development director in Gwinner, said Bobcat is a chief economic engine in southeastern North Dakota and of special significance in Gwinner, a city of about 700 people.

"It's the heart and soul of Gwinner, really," he said.

Cyril said he and Louis were keenly aware of the impact of their invention.

"When you think how many people are making a living on it, it makes you feel good," he said.

Dave Roepke is a reporter for the Forum of Fargo/Moorhead, owned by Forum Communications.