One penny alone isn’t much, but when millions of pennies are gathered together, the miraculous happens. That’s the “penny-nomenal” tale of Dr. Kate Newcomb and the World’s Biggest Penny in Woodruff, Wisconsin.
The story begins in 1931 when Dr. Kate began practicing medicine in Wisconsin’s north woods. Her “clinic” spanned 300 square miles; house calls took her down dirt roads and across lakes in a canoe. When her car got stuck in the deep snow, she trekked by snowshoe to remote cabins to deliver one of more than 3,000 babies by the light of a kerosene lamp. Nothing could stop the “Angel on Snowshoes,” as she fondly came to be known.
In 1941 Dr. Kate opened her own clinic in Woodruff. Her hair graying and her step slowing, the 56-year-old country doctor also began dreaming of her own hospital. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for her to treat patients in hospitals hundreds of miles away. But where would the money come from? It was a hardscrabble life in these north woods.
The Good Lord had a plan—and what a plan it was!
A grateful patient donated $1,000. Spaghetti dinners and dances raised more money. By 1952 the building fund totaled $50,000—$60,000 shy of the $110,000 estimated cost. Nevertheless, the hospital board decided to commence building, and in September 1952 the cornerstone was laid. Just as things were getting started, the coffers dried up and construction halted.
What seemed like the end was but the beginning. One day that fall the geometry instructor at Arbor Vitae-Woodruff High School was trying to explain to his class the magnitude of a million and suggested the students collect a million of something. “How about one million pennies?” a student asked. “A million pennies is $10,000!” another student piped in. “We can donate them to Dr. Kate’s hospital.”
When the press got wind of the million penny drive, an avalanche began. Pennies rolled in by the wheelbarrows full, from 48 states and 23 countries. By April 1953 the students had met their goal: one million coppers—four and one-half tons of them!
If Dr. Kate thought it was raining pennies from heaven, she had seen nothing yet. When Ralph Edwards, host of the popular TV program This Is Your Life, caught wind of the million penny drive to build Dr. Kate’s hospital, he lured the doctor to California under the guise of her attending a medical convention. On March 17, 1954 a flabbergasted Dr. Kate found herself on national television.
“You’re a legend in the great north woods, a figure of pioneer American living in our own day,” said Edwards, adding that “you never enter a room without a prayer on your lips.”
Twenty million Americans watched as the hoax unfolded. Within days 60 bags of mail had flooded the tiny Woodruff post office. One, 10, or dozens of pennies stuffed in envelopes. Piggy banks and cookie jars and shoe boxes filled to the brim with pennies. Thousands more envelopes carried cash or checks. When all the money had been counted, the total was a whopping $106,000—or 10,600,000 pennies!
It was more than enough money to complete the 18-bed hospital and furnish it with the latest medical equipment available. Lakeland Memorial Hospital was dedicated on July 21, 1954, and opened debt-free.
Adding to the “cent-sationalism,” students at Arbor Vitae-Woodruff High School erected in 1954 the world’s largest penny. Standing 15 feet tall and weighing more than six tons, the Big Penny—like all pennies—proclaims the country’s national motto. Above the bust of Abraham Lincoln in letters eight inches tall are the words “In God We Trust.”
In 1988 the Dr. Kate Museum in Woodruff was dedicated as a memorial to the country doctor and all the people who made Lakeland Memorial Hospital a reality. They trusted, and God provided—in a million ways more than one!
Adapted from Penny Prayers: True Stories of Change by Marion Amberg
To learn more about Dr. Kate Newcomb and the World’s Biggest Penny, visit http://www.drkatemuseum.org.
Copyright © 2017 Marion Amberg