STHC Volunteer

Horace "H.J." Kurtz established the Sparta Rotary Club in 1937. Do you have a desire to volunteer like those pictured? 

🙋‍♂️Your Sparta Township Historical Commission is requesting volunteers to assist in completing a digital inventory of our collections donated by the public. 

Jobs include scanning, identifying people and places, creating written descriptions, and inputting on our Past Perfect software. 

No experience necessary, just a willingness to help STHC in this massive effort to digitize our entire collection. 

Please indicate interest by either
📫 Emailing
☎️ Calling Larry Carter at 616-887-7600

This is a perfect opportunity for students needing volunteer hours or to fulfill an internship.

James (Jim) Warren

James (Jim) Warren

James Arthur “Jimmy” Warren was one of the “brightest and best” to ever graduate from Sparta High School. Certainly his future was a promising one. As a leader and student athlete, he excelled in everything he tried, from becoming an Eagle Scout as a young man to becoming the first pilot to make an enemy kill with the vaunted Navy Hellcat fighter. In the Naval commendation when he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, he was credited with “outstanding skill and heroism.” It was said of him, “At every opportunity Ens. Warren dealt the enemy damaging blows, demonstrating tireless attention to duty and superb courage, in keeping with the highest traditions of the U. S. Naval Service.”

Jimmy's life was summarized by his sister-in-law when the James Warren Athletic Award was established. Jim was a running back and Captain of the Sparta High School football team. In 1938, Jim lead his team to the Co-Championship of the Ken-O-Wa League.  After graduation in 1939, Jim went on to play football at Grand Rapids Junior College and eventually played at Michigan State.

While Jimmy was in college, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was brought into World War II. He wanted to join the war effort and decided to put his college career on hold. Determined to serve as a Navy fighter pilot, Jimmy prepared himself by taking flying lessons in Grand Rapids and advanced lessons in Lansing.

Jim enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and took his basic training in New Orleans. He had to study hard and his dedication paid off when he was accepted to the Pensacola Naval Academy in Florida. At the Academy, he trained on aircraft carriers as fighter pilot.  After graduation, Jim was assigned to a Navy fleet fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. 

Identified as an outstanding pilot and flying several successful missions, Jim was credited with destroying the first Japanese Zero in the new Grumman Hellcat fighter which was specifically designed to fight in the South Pacific. He was considered “fearless” in battle, which, for a fighter pilot, was considered “.... the best quality a man can have.”  (as written by Jim's friend, Lt. Jake Rankin).

In 1943, Jim wrote to his parents about the intense fighting with the Japanese over their stronghold on Rabaul. He described the horrors of war and how he was “....flying all day and being bombed all night.” Just days before Christmas, Jim was flying as a section leader in escort to a group of bomber planes when his wingman had engine trouble and was forced to turn back. While Jim was flying alone, the bomber group was attacked by a large force of enemy planes. He turned his sights to the onrushing flock of at least 50 Japanese Zeros and put up an aggressive fight before his plane was shot down. Jim was wounded, but survived the attack. He parachuted into the ocean. Enemy planes wouldn't leave him alone, so Jim had to abandon his life raft and swim toward the shore of a nearby island.

Island natives kept Jim safe for a while, but eventually the enemy discovered his location and placed him in a prisoner of war camp. Conditions were intolerable. The lack of food and medicine ultimately claimed Jim's life. One of the few survivors later met with Jim's father, Charley Warren.  He told first hand of Jim's heroic service and ultimate sacrifice. The only thing he was able to bring back from the prison camp was Jim's graduation ring from the Naval Academy which he gave to Charley. 

In 1960, the James Warren Athletic Award was established at the request of Jim's football teammate, Dean Bradford, to honor his lost friend.  Each year since then, the James Warren Athletic Award had been bestowed to Sparta High School's most outstanding male athlete. Jim would be very proud of each recipient.

Civil War Veterans

Civil War Veterans

On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, SC. President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to enlist with the Union Army. Sparta did its part by sending all eligible men over the age of 18 into service. They left behind their families, homes, and livelihoods to defend the Union. Because of their sacrifice, the Sparta Township Historical Commission is honored to recognize those from the Sparta area that fought in that conflict. The Historical Commission is currently adding to an ongoing roster of every known Sparta man involved in the Civil War. The three men below are but a sample of the stories worthy of remembrance and retelling.

 Amherst Cheney was 23 years old when he enlisted in the Michigan Twenty-First Infantry Company B on August 4, 1862, out of Grand Rapids. He served as a quartermaster clerk from April to November of 1863. He was then promoted to quartermaster Sergeant until May 4, 1864, when he was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in Company H on August 2, 1864. On October 29, 1864, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. Cheney was wounded in action on March 19, 1865, at Bentonville, NC, eventually being sent to Washington, DC., until the war’s end.  During the war, Amherst wrote very informative and interesting letters to Clementine “Tina” Heath. Those letters are part of the Historical Commission’s permanent collection.

The Michigan Twenty-First was instrumental in the southern campaigns of Tennessee and Georgia. They saw action in the battles of Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. Stationed in Chattanooga until June 11, 1864, they built bridges and erected storehouses. At Lookout Mountain until September 20,1864, soldiers built hospitals and ran the sawmill. They were part of General Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Siege of Savannah in December, 1864. Eventually the group moved up the East Coast to Raleigh, NC. There on April 18, 1865, at Bennett Place, they witnessed the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston and his huge army. The Michigan Twenty-First mustered out at Washington, D. C., June 8, 1865, six days after the end of the war. 

Following the Civil War, Amherst Cheney returned to his farm in Sparta. He loved to sing, and established himself as a music and school teacher. In 1869, he married Genie Hinman.  Amherst began a successful political career in 1877, serving in the Michigan House of Representatives. He was reelected in 1878, beating out Jonathan Nash, the Democratic candidate. He served as chair of the Harbor Traffic Committee. In 1888, he unsuccessfully ran for governor as the prohibition nominee. In his retirement years, Mr. Cheney became a fruit farmer, also raising bees. Amherst Cheney died on January 9, 1927, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. His obituary reports a fondness for retelling his feats in the Civil War to eager listeners.

 William Vond, at age 43, was the only black man from Sparta who enlisted in the Civil War. He was placed into the Thirteenth United States Colored Artillery Company F as a private on March 15, 1865. He was discharged in Louisville, KY, on November 18, 1865.

The Thirteenth Colored Artillery served garrison duty at Camp Nelson in Nicholasville, KY. Camp Nelson provided the Union Army with over 10,000 African-American soldiers, making it the third largest recruiting and training depot for African Americans in the nation. Many of the black soldiers brought their families with them to Camp Nelson and eventually the army established a refugee camp for these individuals. Thousands of African-Americans came to Camp Nelson and it was here that they gained their freedom.

After the Civil War ended, Vond came back to his farm northwest of Sparta. He died on April 4, 1889, and is buried at Idlewild Cemetery in Kent City.

 Pvt. Charles Myers, age 22, enlisted in the Michigan Sixth Calvary Company H. The Sixth was part of The Wolverine Brigade. Along with the First, Fifth, and Seventh Cavalries, this company fought in every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac from the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865.

The Battle of Brandy Station (also called the Battle of Fleetwood Hill) was the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the American Civil War, as well as the largest ever to take place on American soil. It was fought on June 9, 1863, around Brandy Station, VA, at the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign. The Union Cavalry under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was pitted against Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate Cavalry.

Private Myers was taken prisoner at Brandy Station and imprisoned at the Camp Sumter Military Prison, Andersonville, GA. Andersonville was one of the largest Confederate military prisons during the Civil War. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died. Myers succumbed to dysentery at the prison on August 21, 1864. His remains are buried at the Andersonville National Cemetery, Macon, GA. 

Approximately 134 men that served in the Civil War were from Sparta and the surrounding area. The ones that returned vowed to never forget. After the war, the Grand Army of the Republic Sparta Post 243 erected a white bronze obelisk monument front and center in Greenwood Cemetery. The inscription reads, “In memory of the heroes who fell in defense of the flag and are buried in unknown graves.”

Dr. Gordon Balyeat

Dr. Gordon Balyeat

Balyeat is a name that is known to virtually all Sparta residents. Balyeat Field, located in Spartan Park, was for many years the school’s athletic venue, and, more recently, has served as a community soccer field. The field was named for O. E. Balyeat, the 34-year iconic Sparta Area Schools superintendent from 1909 to 1943. Mr. Balyeat is a 2014 Sparta Notable.

In this first father-son Notable distinction, your Historical Commission is presenting O. E.’s son, Dr. Gordon Balyeat as a 2016 Sparta Notable. Gordon was born in 1911, followed by a younger brother, Phil, in 1915. Born and raised in Sparta, Gordon, in his own words, “…enjoyed a wonderful upbringing in Sparta.” He excelled as a Boy Scout, achieving the first Eagle rank in the state. Graduating  from Sparta High School in 1928, Gordon then attended Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan. At U of M, he was encouraged by an advisor to change the pronunciation of his last name to ‘Bal-yay’, “…because no one will know how to handle B-A-L-Y-E-A-T.” He made the change without looking back, earning an M.D. degree from U of M, then practiced medicine from Seattle to New York.

In 1941, Gordon and Betty Anne Peterson were married. The Balyeats eventually came to Grand Rapids where he practiced internal medicine and served for a time as Chief of Staff at Blodgett Hospital. Dr. Balyeat established the first intensive care unit (ICU) in West Michigan. All told, he was at Blodgett Hospital for over 50 years. Betty’s death in 2008 completed 67 years together.

Gordon served in the Navy (Russell Islands) during WWII where he treated wounded Marines. Professionally, Dr. Balyeat was a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He was also a member of Kent Country Club, the Peninsular Club, the Audubon Society, and the Izaak Walton League.

As a guest of the Historical Commission, Gordon represented his father at the 2007 opening of Sparta’s new high school, 98 years after O. E.’s introduction to the district. Gordon’s 2009 obituary described him as, “…a person of myriad passions and talents: the trumpet, astronomy, bird watching, fishing, hunting, sports, natural history, and photography, among others.” Dr. Gordon Balyeat died at age 97. He is survived by brother, Phil, a celebrated photographer who lives in Traverse City and is 101 years old. 

Lou Atkinson Keller

Lou Atkinson Keller

Handy Wacks, one of Sparta’s longest family-owned businesses, is a jewel in the crown of Sparta industry. Organized in 1929, the company found its permanent home in Sparta in 1936. Daniel Atkinson, one of the original stockholders, acquired sole ownership in 1932. Daughter Lou Atkinson Keller joined the company as office manager and assumed ownership of the company along with her siblings, Pearl Atkinson Burtch and Walter Atkinson, when their father died.

Lou Atkinson was born to Daniel W. Atkinson and Emma E. Petter Atkinson on July 12, 1882. She had one brother, Walter, born October 16, 1884, and one sister, Pearl, born on April 16, 1897. Lou was married to James Keller on July 3, 1906, and had three children- Irene Keller (Anderson), Howard Keller, and Audrey Keller (Bear). James and Lou filed for divorce June 1, 1924.

Marcia Anderson Fairchild shares her memories of her grandmother: “Grandma Lou was ahead of her time, a real go getter! I don’t know how many boards she was on,” writes Marcia, “but one was the Kent County Road Commission. She also belonged to the Zonta Club, a business organization working to advance the status of women. She could be 100% business and in the next minute, be 100% Grandma!”

Keller is remembered as one of Sparta’s truly civic-minded people. In June, 1962, her village celebrated Lou Keller Recognition Day, when she was honored as one of Sparta’s outstanding citizens. She was very actively involved in the Methodist Church for many years, the secretary of the Community Foundation, a member of the Ladies Literary Club, and the Sparta Garden Club.

“I think, in our family,” her granddaughter writes, “she was most famous for her baked beans. Her kitchen smelled wonderful. Grandma lived on Harper Drive and I so loved to go down the hill to play in the creek below. Grandma and my mother would sit on top of the hill to watch me.”

“I remember Grandma Lou going to South America,” recalls Marcia. “I have no idea how long she was gone, at least a month and possibly longer. I’m not sure if she went to any other country other than Peru, but she came back with chests and chests of treasures. She always let me go downstairs to go through those “treasures” unsupervised. I could sit there for hours and marvel at all the beauty and also her huge collection of flower vases.”

“She always wore a bun at the nape of her neck,” Marcia writes. “One night we were at her house and she was ready for bed. Her hair was braided in a braid that went all the way down to her waist! Grandma had long hair?”

Marcia has wonderful memories of summers at the lake. “All of Grandma’s children had cottages on a lake in Irons, Michigan. I remember when it was so horribly hot Grandma, Audrey, and my mom would take chairs down and set them in the shallow part of the lake. They would hike their dresses up to their knees and put their feet in the water.”

Lou Keller built on her father’s business and made it her own, quite an accomplishment in those days. Her daughter, Irene, and Irene’s daughter, Marcia Anderson Fairchild, continued to run Handy Wacks along with Marcia’s husband, Hank. Today her sons, Steve and Tim May, Lou’s great grandsons, are still there at 100 E. Averill St. in Sparta….and when you go to a restaurant and your food is wrapped in waxed paper, it’s most likely produced right here in Sparta, by the 5th generation of the family of Lou Atkinson Keller.

Lou Keller passed away on February 24, 1971, but she left her mark on our village. Many remember the tiny woman with the bun at the nape of her neck always moving about town with purpose. She was loved then and remembered now. We were blessed to have her.

Dorothy E. (Hessler) Downton

Dorothy E. (Hessler) Downton

Dorothy Downton was born Dorothy Elizabeth Hessler to Rev. and Mrs. Edward A. Hessler in Manistee, Michigan, on November 11, 1946.

In 1959 she and her family moved to Conklin when her father accepted a call to Trinity Lutheran Church. After completing eighth grade at Trinity Lutheran School, she was enrolled in Sparta High School in September, 1960, graduating in June, 1964. Following high school, she attended Davenport College of Business (now Davenport University) in Grand Rapids, graduating in December, 1965, with an Associate in Science degree as a Legal Secretary.

Having made application for employment with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), she was hired and began work in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1966. Initially assigned to the Prints Division of the Bureau, because of her stenographic skills, she was later transferred to the Washington Field Office of the FBI.

Early in her employment with the FBI, she received a job offer from the Office of Congressman Gerald R. Ford. He had recently been elected by his fellow Republican colleagues to be the new Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. As a result of his leadership position, additional staff was needed. She turned down the offer since she had promised to stay with the FBI for at least one year (which was a requirement for new hires). In December, 1966, she received a second offer from Minority Leader Ford's office, because they still needed another secretary who understood shorthand to take dictation. On January 20, 1967, after completing one year and three days with the FBI, she became a secretary to the Administrative Assistant to Minority Leader Ford, Frank Meyer.

From that date until August, 1972, she gained experience, frequently taking dictation from Minority Leader Ford.

Then an event occurred that changed everything. Frank Meyer was in Ford's Grand Rapids office (where he was working on the re-election campaign of Congressman Ford) when he collapsed and died at his desk. Because of the timing, responsibilities were shifted, and Dorothy was selected by Ford to replace his long-time Personal Secretary, Mildred Leonard, as she took on much of the administrative work.

In September, 1973, she met her future husband, David Downton, who was employed on Capitol Hill through the office of Congressman Goodloe E. Byron of Maryland.

Events were moving swiftly as Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, President Richard Nixon's Vice President, was forced to resign due to irregularities when he was Baltimore County Executive. At the same time, the Watergate scandal was plaguing the Nixon Administration, and Nixon, seeking a candidate for the Office of Vice President who would pass congressional scrutiny, nominated Gerald Ford in October, 1973. Following extensive and probing hearings, including IRS audits, Ford was sworn in as the 40th Vice President of the United States on December 6, 1973, and Dorothy became the Personal Secretary to Vice President Ford, and thus an employee of the United States Senate.

In the aftermath of this turmoil, Dorothy and Dave came to Michigan to be married by her father on December 30, 1973, at Trinity Lutheran Church.

The Watergate scandal very soon became a crisis, and by early August of 1974, it was clear that Richard Nixon would be forced to resign, or face impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate.

On August 9, 1974, Gerald R. Ford became the 38th President of the United States, being sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger shortly after noon, when Nixon's resignation took effect. From then until January 20, 1977, Dorothy held the position of Personal Secretary to the President.

After Gerald Ford's electoral loss the previous November, he asked Dorothy and Dave to move with him and Mrs. Ford to Palm Springs, California, where they had decided to reside because of Mrs. Ford's health. Becoming Assistant to the Former President, Dorothy continued to work for former President Ford until November, 1980, when husband Dave's work brought them back to Michigan.

Living in a northern suburb of Detroit, Dorothy, after an eight-year period out of the work force, went back to work outside of the home in May, 1990, as the Personal Secretary for the CEO of Lionel Trains, holding that position until July, 1994.

Finally, in May, 1995, she became the Administrative Assistant to the Chief of Bureau for Michigan of The Associated Press. She retired from The AP on January 18, 2008.

She and husband Dave currently reside in Carleton, Michigan.

Dr. Paul Richard (Pete) Heath

Dr. Paul Richard (Pete) Heath

Dr. Paul Richard (Pete) Heath loved all things athletic and academic.  Born September 1, 1934, in Sparta, Michigan, to Lowell and Minnie (Larson) Heath, Pete grew up just two blocks north of the school in which he would attend kindergarten through graduation. As a member of the class of 1952, Pete served as class president, quarterbacked Sparta’s football team, and was a member of the varsity basketball and baseball teams. He also sang in the chorus and was a member of the band. Today, Pete Heath’s name can be found in the trophy case at Sparta High School as an inductee to the Sparta Athletic Hall of Fame.

Upon graduation, Pete enrolled at Western Michigan University, where he quarterbacked the freshman football team that fall. After one academic year at Western with no way to continue to pay for his education, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy with the opportunity to use the GI bill to continue his education. While serving in the medical corps in Jacksonville, Florida, Pete met Mary Jean Kearce, who he would marry in September, 1956.  When his enlistment was up, Pete went on to complete his undergraduate work at Central Michigan University.  While attending CMU, he received the IIAC Scholarship-Athletic Medal given annually to the Central senior athlete who also excels in the classroom.  Upon graduation, Pete would spend a few years teaching and coaching in New Smyrna, Florida, and Howell, Michigan. 

Pete began his educational administration career at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, working in several capacities. He ultimately became Vice President of Instruction in 1973.  Pete went on to complete his doctoral degree (Ed.D) in educational leadership at Western Michigan University, at which time he interned in the Michigan State Legislature. From 1973-1974, he served as academic dean at Parkersburg Community College in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

In 1974, Pete was named the founding president of John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois. While at John Wood, he was elected chair of the Council of Presidents for the Illinois Community College Association in both 1985 and 1986.  In 1987, Pete became the 5th president of Elgin Community College in Elgin, Illinois, where he served until his retirement.  He was honored at the White House for his work at Elgin Community College. In 1994, Pete received the Centennial Award from Central Michigan University, an award presented to alumni who have distinguished themselves in their profession.  Pete was honored in 2000 as a Transformational Leader by the League for Innovation in community college programs, sponsored by the University of Texas, Austin. In 2006, John Wood Community College chose to name the new community and adult education building in his honor.  The Paul Heath Community Education and Fine Arts Center housed John Wood Community College adult education programs as well as a fine arts auditorium.

In his retirement, Pete enjoyed his family and their many accomplishments. He loved to read, listen to gospel music, play golf, and all things University of Michigan football. But before he was Dr. Paul Richard Heath, Ph.D., he was a son and brother; a small town student athlete whose love of athletics was cause for his absence at his brother’s wedding…he was needed as the varsity quarterback in the championship game. Whose love of his high school alma mater was such that he would make the six-hour round trip in a snow storm to watch his great nephew’s varsity basketball game, or arrive early to the baseball game because watching infield practice was as important as all nine innings. Dr. Paul Richard (Pete) Heath…forever a Spartan.

Donald Bradford

Donald Bradford

Don and twin brother Duane were born to L D and Lillian Bradford with the assistance of Dr. Thies DeYoung. Without the help of ultrasound, the good doctor exclaimed after Duane was born, “Lil, I think there’s another one in there!” The twins attended kindergarten through twelfth grade at the old school on North Union, walking from their home on Centennial Street.

Always enjoying the leadership role, Don served as president of the class of ‘54 his sophomore through senior years and quarterbacked the ‘53 football team to 9 wins in an undefeated, untied season. His single season record of 16 touchdown passes still stands. He also captained the baseball and basketball teams, setting a new SHS single game scoring record of 31 points in basketball in 1954. The Sparta Athletic Hall of Fame inducted Don in 1998 and his entire football team in 2004.

Entering the Army in 1955, Don was assigned to the 3rd infantry Regiment in Arlington, VA., and was honored to serve as a guard at the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” in 1957. After discharge, he joined the Glenn S. Bradford Insurance Agency for a 40 year career and a life of service to the town he loves.  A Rotarian also for 40 years, he served as president in 1967 and as chair of the Student Exchange program in a 25 year “labor of love,” touching the lives of hundreds of families and students here and abroad. Don also was co-chair of the hugely successful Sparta Area Quasquicentennial in 1971 which left us with a summer of great memories.

In 1984, concerned with the lack of growth in Sparta, Don, along with brother Duane and friend Jim Lyals, started Appletree Development Company with the goal of bringing jobs, new housing options, increased tax base, and retail businesses to Sparta. Because the village was not geared for growth, private money had to be raised through investors and bank loans to create the infrastructure including roads, utilities, a lift station and forced main, plus a costly improvement to the county drain. In spite of many challenges, the original goals were all achieved. Don said, “Choice One Bank had the vision to work with us and the taxpayers passed a bond issue to build the new, much needed water tower on the west side.”

Within the Appletree project, another of Don’s dreams for Sparta was realized as he spearheaded the development of Meadowlark Retirement Home which has served the needs of many area residents over the past 25 years. Don said, “It was one of our original goals. Until then, Sparta residents had to move away when they needed these services.”

Don has been married to his high school sweetheart, Kay Kober, for 57 years. They are charter members of Peace Lutheran Church where Don has served in almost every capacity including president, teacher, elder, choir member, and building committee chair.  He has two daughters and two sons and several grandchildren.

Among his hobbies, Don enjoys photography and poetry, winning a local contest with “Hometown Feeling” several years ago - see back page of this booklet.



You'll find it here in our hometown, ‘most everywhere you go,
It's there on people's faces, when they smile and say hello,
You'll feel it in our churches, our schools and in our pubs,
It permeates the meetings, of committees, boards and clubs,
It crosses all the boundaries, of people time and place,
And it touches all regardless, of gender, age or race,
The folks from those big cities, just wouldn't understand,
What separates the two of us, is more that space and land,
It's a lasting kind of friendship, a special kind of trust,
A "county kind" of peaceful, that isn't always rushed,
There's respect for one another, our seniors and our youth,
We value highly justice, integrity and truth,
Our quiet cemeteries, are filled with former neighbors,
Who came and went before us, and rest now from their labors,
We remember that their values, and the good things they have done,
Have left us something precious, to enjoy and build upon,
It's that special hometown feeling, that says we really care,
And those who have discovered it, have found it's great to share,
But like a family heirloom, or treasured sacred trust,
Protecting and preserving it, is now left up to us.
Don Bradford 1993