Emery was born in 1907. A kind and generous young man who never took much interest in schooling or working the family farm, Emery started the eighth grade, but didn’t finish. Like many a man of the time, he moved to California to work in the gold fields, then later found employment at a sawmill. Emery was barely 20 when word came that his mother was gravely ill. He moved back to Nebraska to help his father care for her. There was nothing he could do to ease her suffering, though. He was at her bedside when she died of stomach cancer.
Years later, Emery’s father died of complications from cancer, too. That disease, like a family curse, took two of his six siblings. He never again left Nebraska. Yet he didn’t grow bitter. Instead, Emery retreated to his workshop, finding comfort in working with his hands.
Emery spent hours alone in his shed, meticulously bending pieces of wire, stringing beads or taking apart a discarded lawnmower or television set. He became a fixture at farm auctions, where he took a keen interest in the things most people thought of as castoffs—broken radios, strands of wire, old boards, anything metal. He’d take his finds back to the farm and begin painstakingly manipulating them. Maybe it was therapeutic, maybe it was just a distraction. But in time, what started as a diversion began to have meaning.
“[Emery] believed the machine gave off an energy that made people feel better,” Connie Paxton said in a 2013 documentary about her great-granduncle and his machine. “And I think he really wanted people to feel better because he had experienced so much pain in his life.”
Could Emery’s machine actually heal people? Some said yes. “Standing there, a cool breeze would come up and send chills down my back,” Connie said of her childhood memories of The Healing Machine. “It could be 100 degrees outside, but inside the shed was always cool.”
Not everyone, though, experienced The Healing Machine’s power. In time, word got out about Emery’s creation. In the 1970s, TV reporters came by to do human interest pieces, and Emery sometimes struggled to give some scientific explanation for the relief he believed his beloved machine brought to a variety of sufferers. But, to many, Emery was just a kook; with his wild gray hair and unkempt beard only fueling that perception.
Sometime in the late seventies, Emery developed a sore on his lip. It was skin cancer. He died in 1986 at the age of 79. He left no will. The Healing Machine, his life’s work, was likely headed for the junkyard. Where it belonged, some folks around town said. But that’s where they were wrong. Emery’s labors hadn’t gone unnoticed. The Healing Machine lives on today. Inside the walls of the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where thousands each year continue to be struck by Emery’s fantastical creation. A testament not only to the power of healing but of believing, of choosing to see beauty and grace amid a world often full of pain.