When Pennies Built a Hospital

In the above image, people in Woodruff count the thousands of pennies that came in the mail as part of the Dr. Kate Million Penny fundraiser in 1953.

Dr. Kate was Kate Pelham Newcomb, a country doctor undeterred from attending to her patients by any harsh winter weather that northern Wisconsin threw her way. She was used to adversity, though. Her mother had died when she was very young (as did a baby brother). As a girl, she dreamed of being a doctor but her father thought medicine was an inappropriate career for a woman. So Newcomb became a teacher, instead, in Buffalo, New York, in 1911.

When her stepmother died, Newcomb moved to Boston to take care of her family and manage the home. But she was miserable and still dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her father finally relented and she went to medical school.

In 1919, Newcomb moved to Detroit and opened her own practice. She also met her future husband there, Bill Newcomb, and the two married in 1921. But a lung disease soon led Bill to trade polluted Detroit for the fresh air of Boulder Junction. Newcomb followed in 1923, giving up her medical career for a life in the forest.

But the needs of her new community brought Newcomb back into medicine in 1931.

It wasn’t easy. She was the only doctor serving a far-flung population of several thousand. To reach her patients, she paddled in icy rivers, drove through blizzards, and walked miles in snowshoes. The latter feat earned her the nickname “Angel on Snowshoes.”


Dr Kate Newcomb. Wisconsin Historical Society

Although she eventually delivered more than 3,000 babies (and never losing a mother like she’d lost her own), Newcomb dreamed of doing more. She wanted a hospital and launched a campaign to raise funds for the facility in 1952.

Around the same time, a local schoolteacher seeking to demonstrate how much a million was led to a student drive to collect 1 million pennies, the Million Penny Parade. All of the pennies would go toward funding the hospital.

The effort captured the imagination of people around the country and even around the world. Pennies poured into the Woodruff post office. Newcomb even appeared on the TV show “This Is Your Life” in 1954 to help raise money to complete construction.

With enough funds secured, Lakeland Memorial Hospital opened in 1954. Woodruff gave Newcomb a parade worthy of a hero, with 90 floats and 15 marching bands.

Two years later, in 1956, Newcomb passed away.