Niagara museum plans to restore ‘iron lung’

FROM LEFT, ARNE Haavisto, Joe Geldmeyer and Gary Kassens pose with the iron lung, built by Kimberly Clark Mill workers and Niagara vocational students in 1941, that is being restored for the Niagara Historical Museum in Niagara, Wis. (Karen Klenke photo)

NIAGARA, Wis. — The Niagara Historical Museum looks to breathe new life into one of its exhibits, one that hearkens back to when polio was a threat.

Its “huge” project this year is restoring a tank respirator — better known as an “iron lung” — more than 75 years old.

Built in 1941 by Kimberly Clark Mill workers along with students at the Niagara vocational school, the tank respirator recently came out of storage to be returned to its original state.

Lois and Sam Chartier came across the historical piece years ago when they attended Earl Holmquist’s estate auction on Provencher Road in Niagara. Holmquist was a well-known collector who died in the late 1990s.

Lois Chartier instantly recognized the respirator’s importance to the Niagara community. They didn’t have to pay much for it, she said, and couldn’t remember how they got it home.

It was stored at the Antoninssen farm for many years before the historical society took ownership of the piece.

Karen Klenke, president of the historical society, said it will take several months to restore the item to its previous condition.

“We have to sandblast it and re-chrome it. We want it to look like it was when it was functioning. We are currently getting quotes from sandblasters. This project totally says Niagara; it was built in the mill,” she said.

After two Niagara children died of polio, the community came together to develop the lung in case the disease struck again. The polio vaccine would not become available until 1955.

While it fortunately never had to be used, the respirator is “a tribute to Niagara and the work ethic in Niagara,” Klenke said.

Bill Gay, who spends half of the year on Hamilton Lakes and the other half in Menominee Falls, is a huge supporter of the Niagara Historical Museum.

“Anything to promote the museum is what I am all about,” he said.

To raise money for the museum, Gay donated money to purchase items — a Henry rifle, an American Girl doll, a casino package — that could be raffled off, with the museum keeping all the profits.

“The Historical Society receives both physical and financial support from Gay,” Klenke said. “After the raffle, which he helped support, he decided he would really like the money to go to the restoration of the lung.”

Gay has a personal connection to this particular project. A few years after his father, a chemical engineer for Kimberly Clark, was transferred from Kimberly to Niagara in 1945, Gay was diagnosed with polio.

He had to travel to Marinette weekly for treatment. Doctors thought he should be sent to a boarding school in Green Bay where other polio victims were treated, but his parents instead took training to give him therapy at home.

“It is an incredible gift my parents gave to me, assuring I would still be a part of the family,” he said, adding his father had to miss work, his mother took time away from the numerous organizations she was involved in and they had to find someone to care for his siblings while they made weekly visits to Marinette for treatment.

Gay had to wear a leather brace to school to assist his “drop foot” gait. He eventually had orthopedic surgery — done by then Packers team physician Dr. James Mellon in Green Bay — to transplant muscle from his big toe to his foot.

Gay was in a full cast the summer before his sixth-grade year but said he was grateful to be free of the leg brace by junior high.

Gay also worked a summer at the mill and said Kimberly Clark was so appreciative of the mill’s success in Niagara the company “looked after us as a community.” He holds Kimberly Clark in high regard and remains a shareholder.

He was to surprised to discover an iron lung still existed in Niagara. “It couldn’t have been a better fit,” he said of the restoration project, adding he dedicated the donation in memory of his brother, Robert.

Although he didn’t know about Niagara’s iron lung when he dealt with polio, Gay said he was impressed the community rallied to have it ready if needed.

“All the people involved in the Niagara Historical Museum are so enthusiastic,” he said. “This is phenomenal way to capture that piece of history. How lucky I am to not have needed it.”