When roadside attraction enthusiast Erika Nelson is asked about her favorite “world’s largest” landmark, her immediate impulse is to look ahead to the soon-to-be-seen and yet-to-be-explored. The next one is always her anticipatory favorite, she says.
A moment later, though, she sifts through her countless encounters with the larger-than-life and plucks from her memory bank what she sees as “one of the sweetest stories” associated with wayside wonder—a tale that goes hand in hand with a 17,000-pound penny made of concrete and community spirit.
In the heart of winter, Nelson began, it wasn’t always easy—or even possible—to drive to the site of a childbirth or medical emergency within the remote nooks and crannies of Wisconsin’s Northwoods region. Yet one physician became known for reaching these patients despite frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards.
Although Kate Pelham Newcomb took a break from her vocation to care for her husband and later lost faith in the medical profession following her son’s death, she found her way back to medicine, serving patients throughout northern Wisconsin during the early to mid-1900s and delivering thousands of babies along the way.
At times, she wound her way to house calls using a contraption that looked like it fell straight out of a sci-fi novel: a Model T Ford outfitted with skis in front and mechanical tracks in the rear. If routes were too much for a motorized vehicle, she’d don a pair of snowshoes and trek onward.
When “Dr. Kate” voiced a need for a hospital, she inspired a group of local school kids—including many she had welcomed into the world—to gather one million pennies. As they set their sights on this ambitious aim, the “absurdity of it all … captured the imagination of the American people and the world,” according to a museum devoted to the doctor in Woodruff, Wisconsin.
In 1954, following a successful fundraising drive, the new hospital opened its doors. That same year, the most immense penny on Earth was dedicated as a tribute to…