Golden Valley company marks 125 years in prosthetics
Winkley Company entering fifth-generation of family ownership
No one can remember exactly how Albert Winkley lost his leg before 1885, but now, five generations later, the company he helped found is still going strong in Golden Valley.
Winkley Co. has been building prosthetic and orthotic devices since 1888. It has been headquartered at 740 Douglas Drive North, Golden Valley, since 1978, and has seven locations in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.
Winkley President and CEO Greg Gruman will talk about Winkley’s history during a presentation to the Golden Valley Historical Society Nov. 8.
Albert Winkley was an inventor and amputee who developed a double-slip socket (U.S. Patent no. 316589, April 28, 1885) and tried to start his own business for several years. Lowell Jepson, Greg Gruman’s great-grandfather, knew Winkley after buying horses from him in Faribault, and they went into business together in 1888.
Greg Gruman’s working connection with the company goes back to 1970, but he’d often tag along with his father, Robert Gruman, on Saturday mornings as a child.
“While he worked at his desk, (my brother and I) would either watch cartoons or have wheelchair races down the hall,” Gruman recalled. “That’s when we were elementary school age. (Dad) thought it was something everyone always wants to do, and no one ever does it. He might have been upset, but we never got into trouble.”
Greg, the oldest son, took over the company in 1984 after his father retired and now works out of the company office in Eau Claire, Wis. His daughter Amalia Gruman, 27, of Robbinsdale, and son Alex, 32, of St. Paul, are poised to run the company and keep it family-owned and operated for a fifth generation.
Prosthetics and orthotics are not the same things. Orthotic devices are designed to support or correct deformities or abnormalities in a human body. Prosthetic devices, on the other hand, are designed to replace a missing part of a human body.
Terry Woodman, the general manager at the Golden Valley facility, said that the orthotic design process begin with a plaster molding of patient’s body area. The molding is covered with sheet plastic melted at 400 degrees and draped around the mold. The air is removed through vacuum-pressure, and seams are strategically planned for easy removal.
“This is a big difference between now and the early 1900s,” he says, picking up a piece of molded plastic. “We use a ton of this stuff. The polio braces you used to see – you don’t see too much of that anymore. The plastics have the ability to take on the body’s contours like leather and metal just can’t do.”
The devices are built in a workshop at the Golden Valley headquarters. There are rooms for plaster molding, rooms with grinding tools and workbenches spread through the shop floor covered with projects in various stages of completion. One half of the room is devoted to orthotics, and the other half is dedicated to prosthetics.
Prosthetics, Woodman explained, also begin with a plaster cast, but once that is finished, the work differs. Prosthetic legs, for example, once were made out of willow wood with one end chiseled out to fit a limb stump. Winkley at one time even grew its own willow wood, which had to be cut and dried for two years before it could be used. Now, prosthetic devices are made of metal and plastic, which can be modified easily.
Despite changes in technology, design and materials, one thing hasn’t changed at Winkley – skilled workers still need to assemble the final project by hand. Amalia Gruman, Greg’s daughter, is a full-time prosthetic technician but is in school to become a prosthetic practitioner. Like her father, Amalia also grew up around the business.
“I always thought it was really cool,” she said, while transferring a socket in a vertical jig. “I was always really interested in prosthetics. It was an interesting profession, and I always preferred to come here on ‘take your child to work’ day because my mom was a teacher. You are giving someone back their mobility, their life, essentially. Some people (who have them) are ashamed of prosthetics, but it’s cool to give them the ability to walk around.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way.
“I think it’s really an honor to be in a helping profession, no matter what it is,” Greg Gruman said. “You are dealing with a person’s basic life necessities, and helping them out when they are at the worst point in their life. When you discover that you can step in and make a difference, it’s really remarkable.”
Materials and methods may change, Greg said, but the base desire to use technology to restore a person to a normal activity level is not a new idea.
“That has always been done,” he said. “Even going back to Roman and Greek times, they had artificial limbs that helped them hold a sword or stay on a horse – whatever their occupation was. Going back to ancient times, human beings persevere, and find a way to do what they want to do.”