William Edwin Arbogast did not just get around on a pair of sturdy artificial legs he hewed from Buckeye State willow.
In 1907, he started a company to sell willow wood to prosthetists.
WillowWood has been a family firm since, though the enterprise was known as Ohio Willow Wood from its founding until 2011. The company was rebranded to better emphasize its global reach within the field of O&P.
“My grandfather was a smart old fellow,” Bob Arbogast, chairman of the board and vice president of the firm, told O&P News.
The company, which employs about 200 people in a 100,000-square-foot main building, is still rooted in rural Mt. Sterling, Ohio. But the company no longer creates wooden legs from willow; rather, it does business globally, designing and manufacturing a range of high-tech prosthetic products.
Arbogast’s grandfather is proof that necessity can be the mother of invention. After William lost both legs in a train accident, he was fitted with prostheses that were heavy, cumbersome and uncomfortable.
“My grandfather was a brakeman on a train. The train started when it should not have, inadvertently, and he fell under the train,” Bob Arbogast said.
The wheels severed his right leg above the knee and his left leg below the knee. After he recovered, William investigated and discovered the best wooden legs were crafted from willow. But the strong, lightweight hardwood was not easy to obtain.
“My grandfather decided he was going to make it available,” Arbogast said.
William knew where to start. Willow trees grew in abundance in central Ohio, where he and his wife, Mary, farmed.
William lined up a small crew to help him harvest the timber.
“This particular willow they wanted grew along creek banks,” Arbogast said. “The trees were readily available on his own farm.”
After William and his workers cut down the trees, they brought the logs to the factory, sawed them into rough blanks and stacked them to dry out. The curing process took about a year, according to Arbogast.
William might have been the best advertising for his company. He built himself a pair of willow wood legs that weighed less and were more comfortable than his old ones. They were just as strong and sturdy, too.
William also invented special tools for shaping the blanks into proper artificial limbs and sold them to prosthetists.
From wood to wool and more
In 1921, the company expanded from wood to wool and began producing the well-known Sterling Stump Sock. The sock was designed to provide a better and more comfortable fit between the residual limb and the socket of the prosthesis.
More diversification followed, some of it because of economic necessity. The Great Depression hit in the 1930s, forcing many factories to close. Ohio Willow Wood stayed open by adding polo mallets and balls to its product line. Not a single employee was laid off, according to Arbogast.
Meanwhile, a fire that destroyed the factory threatened to put the company out of business. But the Arbogast family and their employees rebuilt the plant in just a month and saved Ohio Willow Wood’s customer base.
During World War II, Ohio Willow Wood branched into military work, winning defense contracts to make parts for the Navy’s speedy PT Boats and Army Air Force B-17 heavy bombers.
Meanwhile, William’s two sons, William Edwin II, Bob’s father; and John R. Arbogast, were growing up in the business. Eventually, they took over for their dad.
In 1952, the siblings devised the Knee-Shin Unit, the country’s first semi-finished, above-knee prosthesis that featured interchangeable parts. Nine years later, Ohio Willow Wood was the first company in the United States to manufacture a SACH — Solid Ankle, Cushion Heel — Foot.
Bob Arbogast’s first job at the company was vulcanizing rubber soles for artificial feet.
“I was 12 [years] or 13 years old,” he remembered. “My family was not hurting for money, but if I wanted something out of the ordinary, I had to pay the difference. So I worked after school.”
Arbogast continued working part-time at the family factory through high school and college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from The Ohio State University in 1969 and went to work full-time at the company.
“I have never had a job other than for WillowWood,” he said.
In the 1980s, Arbogast computerized Sterling Sock production, overseeing the installation of eight high-tech computerized knitting machines. His next job was to modernize the prosthetic foot department.
“We got away from the vulcanized rubber to a foam prosthetic foot that had a composite keel. All of the other keels were made of wood, which was not [as] reliable.”
In 1984, Ohio Willow Wood devised the Carbon Copy II Foot, the first lightweight, energy-storing prosthetic foot that incorporated carbon composites.
The firm introduced the Alpha Liner in 1996, the first fabric-covered gel interface system. In 2000, Ohio Willow Wood debuted the Pathfinder Foot, which featured a unique triangular design for high-activity feet.
Two years later came the T-Ring Shape Capture Tool, and in 2005, the company developed Alpha DESIGN Liners, which allowed practitioners to customize gel thickness, placement and pattern.
The company also developed LimbLogic VS, a vacuum-suspension technology in 2007 and Alpha Select Liners, a new generation of Alpha Liners, in 2010. Three years later, WillowWood introduced DuraWalk — the company’s most advanced K2 low activity foot. In 2014, came the Alpha SmartTemp — featuring Outlast, the first liner to regulate heat and sweat.
Arbogast is proud of his company’s innovations. He holds or co-holds 20 patents on prosthetic products.
He said further product innovations at his company and throughout the O&P industry will likely be related to increased computerization.
“There is no doubt about it,” he said. “People are going to have to be computer literate. We have an opportunity to do everything from taking the original cast to producing the socket, all without generating any hard copy. In other words, it is all computer files.”
Arbogast said WillowWood does not regularly see patients like an O&P facility does. But the firm works with about 100 volunteer test patients who try out new products prior to release. Also, WillowWood gives prostheses to underprivileged people and to veterans.
Arbogast said a key to the success of WillowWood is the firm’s ability to solve problems under one roof.
“If you do not do that, it takes forever to get there,” he said. “We have about half a dozen prosthetists here solely to help our 20 engineers. The prosthetists and the engineers are able to arrive at solutions jointly. It works out well for us.”
Arbogast’s achievements in O&P have not gone unrewarded.
In 2011, he shared the annual American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association (AOPA) Lifetime Achievement Award with his friend Rudolph B. Becker III, chief executive officer of Becker Orthopedic.
“We are good friends and we do a lot of things together, with me in prosthetics and Rudy in orthotics,” Arbogast said.
In addition, Arbogast chaired AOPA for 2 years and served on the board of directors for 5 years.
He is quick to credit other O&P pioneers for helping boost his successful career. Besides his dad, brother and Becker, Arbogast named Hans Mauck, Ben Moss, Dean Schultz, Don Hardin, Junior Odom, Dan Edwards, Carlton Fillauer, Howard Thranhardt, “the Snell family and countless others.”
Arbogast is especially pleased that his son, Ryan Edwin Arbogast, is president of the firm.
“He has a degree in business, which is where it should be,” the elder Arbogast said. “So much of our company is about business.”