Building the Aerial Lift Bridge again and againKay Johnson is best known for his replica aerial lift bridges — which work. “I used to go across it [the bridge] all the time because I lived on Park Point, so I said, ‘Why don’t I try making a bridge?’”
By: Esther Piszczek, For the Budgeteer News
Kay Johnson is an active 82-year-old living with his wife Charlene at Edgewood Vista’s Assisted Living.
Knowing that Charlene is cared for while he is not at home allows Kay to
continue doing what he loves: hunting, fishing, four-wheeling with his sons, and spending time at the cabin he helped to build on the Whiteface River in the 1960s.
“I act like a kid yet,” laughs Kay.
“That’s true,” Charlene confirms.
Charlene, who is “not a woodsy person,” does not miss visiting the cabin
now that her health has changed. Kay continues to go to the cabin when he can get away.
“I like to see him go [to the cabin], because he does enjoy it,” says Charlene.
Kay and Charlene have been married for 61 years. They raised four children
together. Their first child, and only daughter, passed away from complications due to diabetes three years ago.
“We’ve been blessed, really. They’ve all been good kids,” said Charlene.
They have six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren whom they love
Their boys helped move them into their one-bedroom apartment at Edgewood
Vista. “If it weren’t for those boys, I would have still been moving in and
emptying boxes,” said Kay.
Kay spent the majority of his working life as a shipping clerk with Beck’s
Furniture Showcase in West Duluth.
Charlene stayed home with the children and then worked as a bookkeeper for
About eight years ago, Kay became interested in metal working and began
making leaf sprays in a metal shop housed in his son’s garage in West
“I like making those leaves ... I can turn those out pretty quick.”
Kay’s interest in metal started with classic cars in his youth.
“I made cars. Classic cars and street rods: built them from the frame up.”
For 25 years, he and his wife Charlene took his ’58 Ford to the annual car show in Grand Rapids where Kay “won lots of trophies with it.”
They sold the classic car last year and miss driving it during
Kay is best known for his replica aerial lift bridges — which work.
“I used to go across it [the bridge] all the time because I lived on Park Point, so I said, ‘Why don’t I try making a bridge?’”
Kay handcrafts every bridge entirely out of metal except for the name tag and the weights used to lift and lower the bridge, which he buys.
“I was always handy with my hands.”
Each bridge is individually numbered and takes two weeks to build. Kay recently completed his 103rd lift bridge.
“I make probably 12 [bridges] a year, 13 a year, that’s probably the most
[I make] now.”
Kay sells the bridges for $200 each and spends approximately $40 in materials to build each one.
“So you know what I’m making: about 25 cents an hour,” he laughed.
The bridges, which can be found as far away as Japan and as close as the Duluth Grill, essentially sell themselves.
“I don’t advertise; people just call me. I’m about 12 behind right now. I don’t even have one myself.”
Kay has made bridges for all kinds of occasions. “I’ve made them for wedding presents ... for the middle of a wedding cake.”
He’s even seen one at a funeral. “I just made it [a bridge] for the gentleman and he just loved it. He died and they put it on the altar.”
Over the three years since he started building replica aerial lift bridges, one returning customer has purchased six bridges to give to family and friends.
Kay splits his “shop time” between the metal shop in West Duluth and a woodworking shop, located in his former apartment building on Park Point, that he shares with his good friend Bill Bentfield.
Kay made the oak base for lift bridge No. 103 at the shop where he and Bill have built many items including a votive candle holder, a cocktail table, and an antique telephone bench.
While his wife receives the care she needs at Edgewood Vista, Kay continues to pursue his interests.
“I’m not going to give up anything. Once you give it up you don’t get it back, and I feel good.”