Sparta downtown

Village Articles

Milo & Ben The stories of two friends and early Sparta businessmen: "Milo Bolender's Pharmacy" and "Dr. Benjamin Zudzense & His Monkeys"
From drugs to hardware "Charles Henry Loomis"
The Highway Arrived State Street corridor and post-war growth: "Camp Boys Come to Town" and "Sparta Builders" address the housing shortage
Merry & Bright How we celebrated: "Christmases Past", "A Very Sparta Christmas", "My Christmas Memories", and "Sparta's Easter Bunny Helper"

Sparta Christmas

Downtown all dressed up for Christmas

Christmases Past

The Christmas spirits of faith, hope, and charity have long lived within our township through the good deeds of civic organizations as they prepared baskets of food and gifts for the poor. Local churches offered special services with inspirational musical programs, and the public school music department performed annual Christmas concerts to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Cherub Choir

Sparta Methodist Church Cherub Choir, left to right standing: Christine Westbrook, Kathy Moore, Timi Stebbins, Janet De Voogd, Linda Traxler, Carol Buck, Sharon Anderson, Michael Stevens, Paul Johnson, Douglas Heugel, Susan Van Belkum, Bonnie Freeman, Susan Ekster, Nancy Ryan, Patricia Esther, James Crofoot, Craig Patterson. Kneeling in front row: Jo Ann Moore, Marcia Esther, Wendy Cook, Anne Gardner, Cathy Patterson, James Brevitz, Susan Eadie, Barbara Buck and Marcia Simons--The Sentinel-Leader, 17 Dec 1958

A Christmas pageant was presented at the Baptist church in 1943 by Sparta High School students. Under the leadership of Music Director, Jack M. Davis, the young people took on the responsibilities of planning, advertising, directing, lighting, and as stage managers for the event. Joanne Bettes was the chairman of the program and her committee included Catherine Bull, Esther Lenski, Wanda Murray, Carol Langford, Patty Vaughan, Norman Dake, and Elton Berry. Bernard Johnson and Charles Mills also participated. The Nativity was performed by Marilyn Bradford as Mary; Charles Switzer as Joseph; with Donald Johnson, Gordon Ostman, and Billy Lentz as the Wise Men.

The Sentinel-Leader 1958 "Annual Merry Christmas Edition" front page was almost entirely devoted to upcoming community Christmas events. Some of the headlines: "Trinity Choir to Present Candlelight Service", "Boulevard of Lighted Candles", "Sparta Baptist Choir To Sing Christmas Cantata", "Holy Family Parish Christmas Party", "Englishville Church Program", "Choir Program At Legion Hall", "Nazarene Program", "168 Students in School Concert", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing... Sparta Methodist Church Cherub Choir" among several others.

Orchard Drive was the charming "Boulevard of Lighted Candles" where twenty-two families created identical decoration displays for their homes with a five foot lighted candle placed fifteen feet from each home. At the entrance to their street, a large sign was constructed to welcome visitors with the cheery message: "Greetings to Orchard Drive".

Ballard Church

Ballard Church of Christ at the corner of Ten Mile Road and Sparta Avenue

Back in 1970, Rev. Don Archer and the Ballard Church of Christ congregation presented the gift of a living nativity to the public. He and church members built the stable to be set up in their parking lot and created the character costumes. "All the animals were from local people and farmers," recalls his daughter Janis Bell, "And there was a sign up sheet in the foyer and the church members would sign up for the different characters. They would dress and participate for 30 minute intervals."

Generally, the public viewing ran for just a few days from 7-9 pm which led up to--and included--Christmas Eve.

It was such a success, the living nativity became an annual and much beloved tradition. People in the surrounding area came to see it, reflect on the true significance of the season, and looked forward to the meaningful experience each year.

I Remember
by Arzie L. Pinckney
published in The Sentinel Leader 20 Dec 1967

Christmas Day will soon be here again! My memory goes back to the Christmases of yesteryear. Of course, we never saw Santa until Christmas Eve and then only in the churches.

I remember once Santa was in the window of Haseltine store, now Sherry's Wuz Shop. I remember he was there every day and night for a week, and no one knew who he was although there would be a crowd outside trying to guess who it was.

But the biggest things at Christmastime were the Methodist and Baptist Churches. They both went all out at that time. Always a fine program with every Sunday School class, old and young, represented. And usually the program would be different.

I remember the large temporary platforms that were built up at the altar and sometimes the scene would be inside and sometimes outside.

Always there would be two big trees. As I remember them they nearly reached the ceilings and were wonderfully decorated with yards of popcorn strung on thread. It must have taken hours on end for the women and high school students to string them. There were no such things as electric lights to light the tree. Then there was the evergreen rope that was looped up and around the auditorium fastened to the wall lamps. The Baptist Church had a huge chandelier in the center of the ceiling and the rope was draped from it in all directions.

I remember one time the Methodist Church had a huge fireplace built in and the chimney went all the way up to the ceiling and there was an opening in the back so that Santa looked like he really came down the chimney. Santa would go down and give each child a bag of candy, nuts, and popcorn (sometimes a popcorn ball). All of them were homemade. The goodies were packed in bags made of red mosquito netting with a drawstring at the top. What a job that was for the ladies of the churches! It must have taken weeks to get ready for just one day, but they loved it and were willing to do it...

Santa's sleigh

A sleigh full of Santas... and "reindeer" horses with "antlers"!

I remember that one Christmas the Baptist Church had a great big snowball. As I recall, it must have been seven of eight feet high, made of chicken wire, and covered with cotton batting. The ball was rolled out onto the platform, and then a door opened and Santa crawled out. It was the late Evans Beckwith. Those folks that knew Evans will remember that he was always planning the unusual...

The things that I miss most at Christmastime are the sleigh bells. Many of the men in town owned driving horses, and of course, that meant cutters. There were always a strand of small bells fastened around the horses body, all different in tone, and it was something to hear them ring as the horse trotted along. And there were a number of larger bells fastened to the thills of the cutter that were of different tones. Then there were the strings of larger bells fastened to the harnesses that were used when the farmers hitched up their horses to their sleighs.

What a lot of fun it was to run along side of the sleighs and hop a ride. Sometimes when the horses were going real fast if you tried to jump off you got thrown into the snow along side of the track. Such were the old days at Christmastime. But along with the horses and cutters, those days are gone forever.

A Very Sparta

Christmas in Sparta is a time of merrymaking and reflection for people of all ages. In good times and bad, the community has always made an effort to spread joy of the season with a message of peace and goodwill to all.


Friday, December 17 will be a banner day for the children of this area, when Santa Claus makes his personal appearance. He is expected to arrive early during the afternoon and will remain in town until Christmas eve. Santa will be "all over town" during the remainder of the holiday season, visiting every store, gas station and wherever shoppers and children linger. He will present free gifts to all his young friends, who for weeks have excitedly awaited his coming.--The Sentinel-Leader, Dec 16, 1948

I Remember: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
by Arzie Pinckney
published in The Sentinel-Leader

When Santa came to Sparta the first time was around 1925-26 and was a one day event. Santa and his wife with 2 little helpers. Arzie Pinckney was Santa, Mrs. Claus was Bill Axford, and Don Warren & Merlin Robinson were helpers.


Santa Claus and Children - That typical Christmas combination seen in the photograph taken last Saturday afternoon when Santa paused in front of Wahlstrom's in downtown Sparta to pass out candy treats to children. Santa will be found often along the main street of Sparta through Christmas Eve.--The Sentinel-Leader, Dec 16, 1964

The idea was from the American Legion & Sparta Chamber of Commerce. Adrian Finch's little grocery store was where the Bow Tie is at 10 Mile & Alpine and they all dressed up there and waited for the afternoon Greyhound coming from Grand Rapids and loaded on to Union Street and Division at the bus stop. A truck met them and drove them around the Village and came back to the corner and handed out candy and nuts, went back to Finch's to change clothes.

Next year, Santa came for one day and George Bettes took the job of Santa but there was no snow so he flew in on an airplane. West of South State Street and South Street there were very few homes and a lot of open land to set the plane down and take off.

The next year the committee decided to have Santa come for a week before Christmas and be on the street each night. That caused a problem in finding a Santa to work that schedule. Ivan Walcott was Sparta's next Santa for two years.

Some of the other Santas were Bert A.C. Nokes for a number of years. Others: Warner (Pops) Sigel, Lenys Straight, Pete Prenger, Bill Fitzgerald, Jim Fales, and Dudley Planter. Dudley was from Conklin so he came with a pair of ponies.


Saturday was a big day for the children of the North Kent area thanks to the annual first visit of Santa Claus to Sparta. Santa is shown giving out candy to some of the more than 1000 children on hand in downtown Sparta for his visit. He will be in Sparta frequently until Christmas his North Pole headquarters reports. In fact, an added attraction of his visits will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. each Saturday afternoon when children can have their photographs taken with him in the front window of Harding's Furniture Store. The Sparta Jaycees are responsible for this and the cost is $1.50 for each color photograph.--The North Kent Advance and Comstock Park Courier, Dec 8, 1965, which featured Santa Lowell Heath in his sleigh

Editor's note: Nearly a century has passed since our first Santa, Arzie Pinckney, came to town. Over the years, local men and women took on the role of Sparta's jolly old St. Nick and Mrs. Claus as they brought candy canes, gifts, and joy to thousands of area children. some of the others who carried on the tradition, wore Kris Kringle's boots, and put on the red suit were Lowell Heath and Bill Traxler.

I can still hear the sound of bells around town as Santa exclaimed, "Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!" (If you know of another Sparta Santa, please let us know.)

Currently, Sparta's official Mr & Mrs Claus are Skip & Mary-Ann Meyers. Paul Rogers asked Skip to take on the role about fifteen or twenty years ago when Santa's house was a wagon parked outside of Choice One Bank. These North Pole visitors arrive for Sparta's parade and make special appearances around town during the Christmas season.

Ned Rouse, brought Santa Claus to children since the mid-1980s in many venues around the state, often singing and performing. His wife, Sara, accompanied him for several years and the jolly couple have been seen at local home visits. Both are Sparta graduates.

A Letter from Santa Claus

Hi Boys and Girls:

Do you believe in Santa Claus? Well, if you don't, you will be next Saturday because I am coming to Sparta in person that day and you will see me in my red suit with my white whiskers, and do I look swell! O, boy!

I am coming a whole week before Christmas because I happen to be near Sparta on business and will be glad to stop off and see all my little friends that day. But don't worry, I'll be back again Christmas eve, only perhaps you won't see me because you will be sound asleep.

The most exciting part about this trip is that I am coming by airplane and will arrive about 2 o'clock Saturday afternoon in the landing field near the Lone Elm.

Santa parade

During the Great Depression, Sparta merchants ensured children would have a bright and memorable Christmas. Santa George Bettes' exciting arrival by airplane was announced in The Sentinel-Leader on Dec 14, 1933

As soon as the plane lands I will jump right out and run to my cutter which will be waiting for me and I will hop in with my bag of toys. They tell me that several ponies will be hitched to this sleigh and they will have bells on them and big plumes on their heads, and little brownies will march in front of the ponies and my sleigh.

Any boy or girl can come as a brownie if you wish. Get your mother to help you dress up and be sure to be there to give me a great big hand! And if there is snow as there is now, it will be even nicer, don't you think? I could not bring my reindeer because I am traveling by plane, so that is why the ponies and sleigh will be waiting and ready when I arrive. Won't it be fun?

I expect you are counting the days and hours until I arrive, and so am I! If it is very cold as it is today, you must all wear your heavy coats, mufflers, sweaters, wooly caps and galoshes.

As soon as I have loaded my toys into the sleigh we will have a parade and march up town to Mr. Field's barn where I will give everyone of my little friends a bag of candy and a toy, and also a free ticket which you can use the next Saturday for the movie, and it won't cost you a cent.

Now don't disappoint me. I want to see hundreds of boys and girls waiting for me when I land. Don't forget!

Saturday at 2 o'clock I will be with you in Sparta! Hurrah! I'll be seeing you!

With love,

Big Santa Claus Parade
Saturday, December 22, at 2 o'clock
Highlights of the Parade

Santa parade

In 1934, Santa was Ivan Walcott. The schedule for the "Big Santa Claus Parade" announcement appeared on the front page of The Sentinel-Leader on Dec 20, 1934.

Santa Claus will ride at the head of the parade in a beautifully decorated open roadster. The rural schools will have decorated Christmas floats. Special prizes of $10.00 and $5.00 have been offered for the two best school floats entered in the big parade. The school children of Sparta District Number 2 will march in the parade wearing all kinds of costumes. Three cash prizes are being offered to the children wearing the most attractive costumes. Many merchants of Sparta will enter beautiful floats and other surprise novelties in the most colorful parade ever planned for Sparta.

1500 Big Boxes of Candy Will be Given Free to all of the boys and girls of grade school age who come to Sparta Saturday afternoon, December 22.

The streets of Sparta were jammed with people for the big parade last year. Next Saturday promises to break all past records for big crowds in Sparta.

Bring the whole family - Everyone is welcome

Stay long enough to see the magnificent display of colored electric lights and Christmas trees. You will be thrilled with the veritable blanket of dazzling, twinkling, cheerful lights, which spreads above the business district of Sparta.

The most beautiful sight in western Michigan! Come early!

The parade starts promptly at 2:00 P.M. Entire program sponsored by The Sparta Chamber of Commerce (Stores open every night until Christmas)

How successful was the Santa Claus event in 1933? It was a resounding success. The Chamber of Commerce's promotion of their 1934 extravaganza described expectations it would top the ginormous turn out from the year before. Keep in mind, these efforts took place during the Great Depression, a time when the average national unemployment rate was at 26%, but the hardest hit state was Michigan with a 34% jobless rate. In spite of these circumstances, the people and businesses of Sparta created a memorable celebration and brought the priceless gift of joy to the area children.

My Christmas

by Adele Bradford Jones

He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake,
He knows when you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Sparta has always been a very special place to live and grow up. Christmas was especially so. The holidays brought colored lights strung across main street downtown. The Sparta Theater had a Santa and sleigh above its doors. Store windows were decorated and full of ideas for Christmas gifts. There was an automated Santa that waved from the window at Sherry's Furniture and Gifts. In fact, there is an exciting rumor that Santa may appear again soon in a window at the Sparta Township Historical Commission Research Center across from the Sparta Library.


Adele anticipating Christmas in 1950

One of my reasons for writing this story is in response to the song lyrics I started with. When I was about five, I remember feeling Santa was keeping an eye on us during the Christmas season. After all, he was spotted occasionally downtown walking the sidewalks of Sparta and glancing in our windows after dark to see if we've "been bad or good so be good for goodness sake"! We were probably listening to Christmas music on the radio or watching a Christmas special on our little 9" TV after we got it in 1950. That little TV is now on display at the Sparta Meyers Schoolhouse Museum. It just might appear in the window with Santa this holiday.


Christmas morning in 1951 at the Bradfords' home with Adele's kitty curled up under the tree

Back in the 50s, we always had a real Christmas tree with colored lights including some bubble lights. We likely picked out our fresh tree at Montgomery's tree lot behind Badgerow's store (a favorite hangout for kids to get their candy and ice cream treats). Dad would let us get our tree one week before Christmas and it stayed up in our front bay window until New Years. Going to bed on Christmas Eve, I remembered being concerned Santa would try slipping down our chimney, which would land him right into our coal furnace in the basement! Dad would always comfort us by saying Santa knows when to use the front door that would be unlocked.

Christmas mornings, we could first check our stockings that Santa had carefully filled. There was always an orange in the toe and a candy cane. One of my favorite mornings, I received a 1950s style Ginger doll with clothes. Christmas dinner might include some Swedish potato sausage from Finch's Meat Market, our decorated cut-out cookies, homemade mincemeat pie, and Grandma Bradford's whipped cream cake.


Santa is Coming to Town! Advertisement for the Santa Parade from the November 26, 1958 Sentinel-Leader

In my early teens, my best friend Marilyn Miller and I enrolled in a Christmas Club at the Sparta State Bank. Fifty cents a week led to getting a $25 dollar check about Thanksgiving. At that time, there was a Greyhound bus that came to Sparta mornings and traveled to downtown Grand Rapids, coming back to Sparta around 6:00 pm. We would take our $25 and catch the bus next to Wolf's Drugs (maybe fifty cents round trip). The department stores like Wurzburg's and Herpolsheimer's had automated holiday window scenes, but we especially loved the old dime stores like Kresge's and Woolworth's! We would shop for family Christmas gifts and catch the bus home. Looking back, that $25 sure could go a long way. These were such great adventures years ago!

Shopping in Sparta might include Christmas cards from Momber's, perfume from Wolf's Drugs, a poinsettia from Ostman Floral, rolls and bread from Paris Bakery, maybe something special for dad from Western Auto or Roger's Hardward, and something sparkly from Paul Lawrence or Hammer Jewelry for mom. Lunch might have been burger, fries, and cherry coke at the B & T or Bob's Lunch. There were gifts for everyone at Carl Wahlstrom Federated or the Ben Franklin 5 & 10. Wouldn't it be delightful to be able to visit that Ben Franklin store one more time! These are only a few of our favorite places in Sparta in the '50s.

My dad's last Christmas in 1994, we had the Sparta Santa visit to Mom and Dad's house. Dad said, "Santa, I haven't seen you in a long time." We had him bring a box of Russell Stover chocolates just like Dad would bring home every Christmas from the Muskegon Piston Ring in Sparta for many years.

I still remember those feelings of security and love right here in our little town of Sparta. I am so blessed, that in my seventies, I still have these wonderful memories.

Sparta's Easter
Bunny Helper

Leading up to Easter in the 50's and 60's, Sparta's Lillian Bradford spent many hours at the Ben Franklin store basement. She had the task of creating special Easter baskets for sale in the store. She took her "Easter Bunny helper" job very seriously for about twenty years.

Lillian's baskets

Advertisement for Lillian's beautiful Easter baskets in the Sentinel Leader on 6 Apr 1966

Typically, she would start with a bright multicolored basket which she filled with green stringy grass. Each basket was created individually. Sometimes a sand pail and shovel or plastic dump truck were used in place of the basket. A small toy would be in each one like a stuffed bunny for a girl and toy truck or boat for a boy. For a special surprise, Lillian might have included a jump rope, bubbles to blow, wood paddle with a ball, yo-yo, or a bag of marbles. Often, the featured item was a tall mouthwatering chocolate bunny. Marshmallow eggs, yellow peeps, and colorful jelly beans would be lying in the grass. Cellophane wrap would finish the basket gathered at the top with bright colored ribbon in bows and curlycues. Lillian's creations lined the store shelves just waiting to delight Sparta area children on any Easter Bunny's list!--by Adele Jones

Lillian Bradford

Lillian Bradford

Lillian Bradford

In 1931, at the age of 19 and as a new bride, I moved to Sparta. The only person I knew was my husband, LD Bradford. We purchased the house where I still reside on Centennial Street. The house had also belonged to LD's father, Harry Bradford, grandfather Perry Bradford, and great-grandfather Moses Bradford. There were many relatives to the Bradfords including the Colbys and the Penningtons. There were Sunday dinners at each others homes and reunions at Camp Lake. I soon got acquainted and made friends.

Sparta was a busy town for its size. The Sparta Foundry, Carnation Milk Plant, and Welch Manufacturing were the industries. One thing that fascinated me about Sparta was that in my home town the only store close by was a small grocery store. For anything else, we took the bus downtown. In Sparta, within two blocks there were two churches, a post office, a dime store, two grocery stores, two meat markets, a hardware store, and a large clothing store. The countryside was beautiful with its cherry, peach, and apple orchards and lots of lakes.

I fell in love with Sparta and we raised our five children here. During those years, I was involved in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, PTA, and other school activities. Also, a quilting club. I worked at Finches Meat Market and the Ben Franklin dime store. For many years, I was the village Easter Bunny providing the baskets full of goodies sold at the variety store. I have never had a desire to live elsewhere.--by Lillian Bradford, 6/19/1996



Sparta Township Historical Commission headquarters at 71 North Union Street

Our History Center is conveniently located at 71 North Union Street in downtown Sparta. Please join us for coffee and lively conversation on Monday mornings. Visits to the History Center can also be scheduled by appointment, for your convenience.

We do not receive mail at the History Center, instead, please use our mailing address, which is:

attn: Sparta Township Historical Commission
Sparta Township
160 E. Division St.
Sparta MI 49345

Our complete archives are now available online for your convenience. Just click STHC PastPerfect Catalog Access and begin your research!

For other inquiries, the Sparta Township Historical Commission can be reached by phone at: (616)606-0765 or via email at the following address: