By 1930, William H. “Bill” Penfield had been a professional steeplejack for 20 years and had lived in and near Strawberry Point for 25 years.
In July that year, the 50-year-old Kansas native set out to break the world pole-sitting record that, at the time, stood at 23 days, a record set by Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly of New York.
Penfield intended to climb Strawberry Point’s 100-foot steel flagpole — which he’d installed five years before — and stay there until he broke Shipwreck’s record.
The problem was, Shipwreck had started another pole-sitting marathon in Atlantic City.
Penfield’s idea had support from Strawberry Point businessmen, who saw the feat as great advertising for the Clayton County city in northeast Iowa.
In order to break the record, Penfield created a special chair that allowed him to sit, lie down or stand up. He carried a heavy rubber blanket to protect against rain and cold and a quilt to sleep on.
Strawberry Point café manager C.H. Jenkins agreed to provide meals while Penfield was on the pole, and he engaged a special ground crew to take care of other needs.
A telephone was installed at the top of the pole so Penfield could talk more easily to those on the ground.
When City Council members got wind of Penfield’s plans, they started calculating the town’s liability if Penfield or anyone else got hurt during the stunt. They sought an injunction prohibiting Penfield from using the pole.
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Penfield had planned to start his pole-top campout at noon July 23. Instead, he hid out before the injunction could be served and climbed the pole at 3 a.m. When daylight came, there he sat atop the pole, in full view of City Hall, with plans to stay there till Labor Day.
Unless officials could find a way to bring him back down, he planned to stay there until Labor Day.
Two days later, he reported “feeling fine.” His phone connection had been installed July 25, and a crowd that reached 600 people gathered to watch him shave (he put a mirror on the back of his chair and maneuvered until he could see his face), sleep and keep tabs on a barn fire that he could see clearly from his perch.
By July 30, the crowd on the ground was estimated at 6,000, and cars from 36 Iowa counties and several other states were noted.
On Aug. 4, the temperature soared to 108, but Penfield claimed he spent a “comfortable” day because of the strong breeze. There was a drawback, though. The wind prevented Penfield from using the umbrella that shielded him from the sun.
Meanwhile, Shipwreck had been on his Atlantic City pole for more than 40 days by then, and Penfield’s wife and daughter kept tabs on his progress so Penfield would know the mark he had to beat.
The number of spectators continued to grow. Finding a parking place in the city of 1,000 was a challenge.
On Aug. 10, bands from Arlington, Lamont and Aurora played near the flagpole.
That same day, a group of five drove from Postville to see Penfield and found themselves in the midst of “the biggest jam of folks we have been in since Ringling Bros. visited Postville,” according to the Postville Herald. “Cars were parked on both sides of main street for blocks and for a block or two on all streets intersecting with it, and for a block or two on the sidewalk either side of the polesitter you had to fight your way through a mass of humanity, while restaurants and refreshment stands were doing more business than a land office did back in the old days.”
listening to cubs
After 46 days, with the record set by Shipwreck a few days away, Penfield told reporters, “I am feeling fine, having missed but one meal in 46 days, and see no reason why I could not remain here until November if someone would make it an object.”
Penfield — who’d painted church towers in DeWitt and Elkader and the Manchester water tank — said he’d even gained weight on his diet of toast, coffee, milk, fish, chicken, cantaloupes and fruits.
His only visitor was a fellow steeplejack from Manchester.
“I spend my time reading and smoking and am greatly interested in the sporting world,” he told a reporter. “By the aid of earphones and the switching of wire connections from the light socket, I am permitted to receive radio programs as they are received from the radio set at the Franklin Furniture store and enjoy them immensely.”
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A Cubs’ fan, Penfield nearly lost his seat during one exciting game.
Penfield’s wife, daughter Margaret Shaw, and 2-year-old grandson, Le Roy Shaw, visited the flagpole often. The Penfields celebrated their 23rd anniversary at the pole.
His foray to the top of the flagpole brought comments that included “not much above his shoulder,” and “he’s a big fool.” But still they came by the thousands to see him.
On Sept. 10, at 4:30 a.m., Penfield tied, then passed, Shipwreck’s record.
He stayed put until Sept. 12 when an electrical storm drove him from the pole and his feet touched the ground for the first time since July 23.
His world record was 51 days and 20 hours.
His descent seemed to put an end to the town’s plans to stage a big celebration on Friday, Sept. 19, but at 4:30 Sept. 14, Penfield returned to his aerial nest until time for the celebration.
On Sept. 19, he again descended at 1:16 p.m. to the celebration, which included speeches and a baseball game.
buying a farm
Sadly, Penfield’s hopes for riches didn’t materialize. After expenses, he earned $1. He had gone up the flagpole on his own. When he was offered a chance to do it again in Florida in November 1930 and in Shenandoah, Iowa, in May 1931, he had a manager and a contract.
He set a record of 79 days, 3 hours, on a 209-foot radio tower there WHERE? on Sept. 8, 1931. He was paid $3,000.
A few days later, a sitter from Dyersville broke his record.
Penfield bought an 80-acre farm across the state line in Missouri and moved his family there, where he died in 1961 at age 84.
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