Decades before penicillin, farm work could be just as debilitating as war and an enterprising one-legged Iowa man decided to put his, er, best foot forward to aid folks wounded by both causes when he founded the Twin City Artificial Limb Co. in 1904. Council Bluffs’ John F. Johnson would soon be drumming up business for his hand-carved arms and legs with the perfect wooden calling card, a simple pencil.
It’s unclear how Johnson himself lost his leg, but by the time World War I was afoot in the 1910s, Johnson was not only fitting soldier amputees with his prosthetics, but taking them into his own home five at a time for an entire month to measure them properly and fully teach them how to use their new limbs.
During the Depression, however, mystery steps into the story. Johnson’s name oddly fell off the TCAL radar after he was sued for $5000 (about $75,000 in today’s money) over a defective leg brace in 1931. His secretary wife, Blanche, apparently became owner in 1935. By 1940, Mr. Johnson was dead, but his company lived on because one of those maimed WWI soldiers — maybe even one of the boys he helped get back on his “feet” — took over just in time for World War II.
It would likely be Edward V. Lucas, who lost both of his legs fighting in Europe circa 1918, who commissioned the circa 1940s white-and-blue pencils like the one Graphite Confidential found. Lucas took great pride in making legs good enough to put World War II pilots back in action. Personal tragedy during this era, however, turned his attention to younger victims.
Lucas had four small children when Scarlet Fever broke out following a flood in 1943. His wife Liela insisted that she and the kids take an anti-fever serum which killed her within hours. Now a widower with four children, it’s no wonder that Ed Lucas immediately started donating his, er, handicrafts to injured youngsters. In 1944, Lucas temporarily took in eight-year-old Jack Bowen, who lost both legs in a freight train accident, made him new limbs and taught him to walk again.
Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and baseball legend Satchel Page helped Twin City Artificial Limb lend hand a few years later when another boy, 10 year old Hank Steinhoff, lost his arm in a 1951 train accident. The celebs sent in personal items — clothes, golf clubs, and a signed baseball — for an auction that raised at least $2500 ($33 grand in today’s money), and not only did TCAL’s Ed Lucas bid up the clothes, he threw in the custom-made arm for free, saying “I know from experience the cost of keeping this youngster in arms until he reaches maturity."
Just two years later, the young victim of the Korean War would be helped by Twin City Artificial Limb. An American GI found legless 12-year-old Song Yong Cho crawling around a Busan depot ironically shining shoes after frostbite claimed his lower limbs at age 10 in Seoul. Brought to Boys Town in Iowa, TCAL’s Ed Lucas — who had remarried and had his own fifth child — volunteered to make him free legs until he was fully grown, giving him new limbs 1” taller every year.
We couldn’t find record of when Mr. Lucas passed away, but Twin City Artificial Limb was helping folks get back on their feet until at least 1972, when the company appears in the local school district’s assignment to teach pupils about local businesses. We can only hope those elementary schoolers used a Twin City Artificial Limb pencil like this one and got to find out about all the work they did for at least 70 years to help wounded veterans, maimed midwestern youngsters, and even the young victims of overseas wars.