(Published for the Big Penny Campaign for the L. E. Phillips Memorial Public Library)
Thanks a Million, Dr. Kate
Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb was the only doctor in her area of northern Wisconsin in the first half of the twentieth century. She drove over 100 miles a day, visiting 20-45 patients at their homes and cabins. She set broken bones, soothed fevers, healed infections, stitched wounds, performed surgeries and delivered over 3,000 babies. However, the nearest hospital was miles away—a distance that could take hours on the rough rural roads if the weather was bad. What she wished for the most was a hospital nearby in her community.
Chapter 5: The Million Penny Parade
In the fall of 1953, something happened that really got the hospital construction moving. Arbor Vitae-Woodruff geometry teacher Otto Burich asked his class to imagine a million of something. They counted the holes in the ceiling tiles and estimated how many square feet it would take to reach a million. But that wasn’t very exciting. Then they talked about collecting a million of something, just so they could see the pile. Acorns. Or maybe stones. Then a girl said she’d like to see a million pennies all together. The rest of the class liked the idea. A million pennies. Imagine. $10,000! But what would they do with it? And that’s when the class thought of Dr. Kate’s hospital just up the road, whose building had stalled because of lack of funds. What if they gave the pennies to the hospital?
Suddenly, everyone was excited. And the Million Penny Paraders were born.
The project soon engulfed the whole school. After the Million Penny Paraders donated their own pennies, they enlisted the help of the school’s typing students. Back then, there were no copy machines or printers. The students rolled 500 individual pieces of paper into the school’s typewriters and typed out 500 letters—one at a time—explaining their campaign and asking for donations. They sent the letters out to members of the community as well as people who summered in the area.
The pennies started rolling in. Once the pennies got to school, the math classes graphed the amounts. The social studies classes kept track on a map where the pennies came from. Each person who donated a dollar or more had his name recorded in the penny book and a thank you card was sent.
The energy of the high school students was contagious in the community. Soon area merchants put out jars, held raffles, hosted pancake dinners, dances, basketball games, even a variety show whose proceeds all went to the Million Penny Parade. People who had once paid Dr. Kate in firewood, chickens, and fresh vegetables dug deep in their pockets to give their spare change to her dream. And that wasn’t all that was donated. People offered cement, wood, labor, and equipment.
By Christmas, they were a quarter of the way there. And their success was gaining attention. Big city newspapers—from as far away as Milwaukee and Chicago—ran stories about the penny drive. Then the national news wires picked it up. Suddenly, the Million Penny Parade for Dr. Kate’s hospital played on newsreels nationwide.
The donations started pouring in. Now the students had to lug buckets of pennies to the bank every day. “I’ll never forget the long ride to Tomahawk with a broken leg last summer,” wrote one donor who sent in his spare change. The students kept graphing their progress. They kept mapping where the donations came from. And they kept writing letters.
“Read about your campaign to collect enough pennies to build the new hospital in your community. I hope these will in a small way help your goal. We have no use for pennies here, and I have had these sixteen months since I arrived here,” wrote Corporal G. E. Whitmore from his military station in Chunchon, Korea.
A fourth grade teacher of Hill School in Thormopolis, Wyoming wrote, “It has been called to my attention that Wyoming hasn’t contributed to your Penny Parade. Our 4th grade is enclosing a dollar from their club money to the “Penny Parade…hope your receive many more dollars from Wyoming.”
Soon they had donations from every state in the country and 23 foreign countries. Over 60,000 people sent money for the hospital that year. In mid-April, just 104 school days after they started, the Million Penny Paraders reached their goal. They had averaged $115 a day!
Many people sent much more than pennies. Some sent nickels and quarters. Some sent crumpled dollar bills. Others wrote checks. Since the money came in over months and not all of it was in pennies, not even the Penny Paraders had seen the million pennies all together yet. So the Million Penny Paraders started planning a celebration for Memorial Day, 1953. It included marching bands, floats, a penny queen, and the display of their million pennies in the gym of their school.
For the parade, armored trucks from banks in Milwaukee and Minneapolis drove in, bringing the amount of their account in pennies. These were dumped on the floor of the gym. Everyone gaped at the 20 by 26 foot pile of pennies. It was the size of their classroom! The Million Penny Paraders had done it and more. 1,700,000 pennies—$17,000—shone on the floor.
That summer, while the National Guard watched the pile, over 56,000 people from all over the world streamed in to see the pennies that summer. Kids played in them. People tried to shovel the heavy coins. Once there, visitors bought penny earrings, collected Dr. Kate seals, signed the penny book, and got their pictures taken in the sea of pennies. Most added to the pile before they left.
The Million Penny Paraders were more successful than anyone had ever dreamed. And their donation helped immensely. But the hospital wasn’t in the clear yet. Equipment was terribly expensive. And that following year, Dr. Kate found that some of her cases still had to be sent to the hospital in Tomahawk.
After the Penny Parade…
The penny drive was so successful that Ralph Edwards, a television star, heard of the story. He surprised Dr. Kate by pulling her out of his TV program’s audience and doing a show on her!
After the show aired, mail poured into Woodruff. Over $110,000 was donated to the hospital. (How many pennies is that?) The hospital was finally completed. It still stands today, as the Dr. Kate Newcomb Convalescent Home.
In 2003, the 50th anniversary of the first Penny Parade, school kids again collected pennies. They again reached 1,700,000. This time the money went to fund scholarships in education and medicine.
More Penny Facts
- The Million Penny Paraders published a pamphlet of their penny drive that was handed out at their parade and in the gym where the pennies were on display in 1953. Here are their penny statistics:
- Pile in a single column the 1,000,000 pennies will make a column 5, 000 feet high.
- Place side-by-side the pennies would produce a ribbon of copper for 11.84 miles.
- If 10 pennies weigh 1.107 ounces, the 1,000,000 of them will weigh 6918.75 pounds or 3.459 tons.
- 1,000,000 pennies placed side-by-side will cover an area of 3906.24 square feet.
- In a solid mass the 1,000, 000 pennies would be equivalent to 2.212 cubic yards, which means that a 2 yard dump truck would not be able to haul them.
- Coinage of the present bronze cent (derived from the Latin centum “hundred”) consisting of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc, began in 1864, and continued with the Indian head until 1909 when the bust of Lincoln was placed on the cent and contuse to date.
- Between the dates 1909 to 1951 inclusive 18, 279,679,954 pennies were coined in the United States.
- The million pennies of the Penny Parade is .00547 of the total amount minted or .547%.
- If a man could have started collecting a million pennies a penny a day on the day of the birth of Christ, he would complete his collection on about November 6, 2737.