industrial revolution

Quality & Style

As the railroad connected Sparta to the rest of the world, soon an industrial boom was ignited. The prospect of shipping materials in and finished products out while situated in a relatively close proximity to the Grand Rapids metropolitan area made Sparta a very attractive prospect for factories. With a ready and willing workforce, skilled tradesmen, as well as individuals possessing ingenuity, determination, and a good measure of courage, the future was promising. And so, the Industrial Revolution dawned bright for the fair village.

Sparta Coach
& Body Company

Formerly the Welch Folding Bed Company, the massive three story brick factory parallel to the railroad had been empty for several years when a proposal to revive it arose. The first public inkling of something in the works was announced in a front page article, SPARTA'S NEW TRAILER INDUSTRY TO EMPLOY LOCAL LABOR: Mass Production, Plus Design, Facilities and Sales Organization, Assures Success, which appeared in the August 30, 1934, issue of The Sentinel-Leader. The information was attributed to an "interview with J.G. McKenna, chief mechanical engineer of Sparta's contemplated trailer industry."

McKenna and Moraine

J.G. McKenna and E.C. Moraine--from The Sentinel-Leader (8 Nov 1934)

According to the United States Chamber of Commerce, popularity of trailers boomed during "the depression years of 1931-1933" as evidenced be a significant increase in their registration numbers, even as the numbers of car and truck registrations sharply declined from 30 to 23 million vehicles. Did people who lost their homes and jobs live in trailers? Quite likely.

"Mr McKenna first became interested in trailers in 1919 during a visit in England where he had been sent by his company to study European body designs. Before returning to the states, he purchased one of the European built caravans from a company which has been in existence close to 400 years. Their product, he claims, has always been closely related to the present day auto trailer, for it is this firm that has always built the old horse drawn gypsy wagon. Mr McKenna further states that this company has been profitably engaged in the same business for 400 years."


Sparta Coach and Body Company "Weatherproof factory", formerly Welch Folding Beds--series of photos of the factory and trailer coaches are courtesy of Faye Ann Bristol & Loretta Baughan

The news item went on to discuss his vision. "The market has developed to a point where it will justify putting these coaches into mass production. With the proper design, facilities and a well directed sales organization the success of such an organization is practically assured."

Most companies in the business of building trailers were very small and lacked adequate manufacturing facilities, as well as personnel. McKenna believed mass production, design, and the ability to ship to "key distribution points in knock-down form" would amount to a significant reduction in transportation costs, possibly as much as a 90% savings. All parts would be interchangeable with components not only for use on their own product, but also be available even to the do-it-yourself customer to use for his own design.

When asked how many local men may be hired, he suggested the figure to be at 50 over the first year. They would be local residents, provided there were enough men capable of doing the work, otherwise hiring outside of the community would be required.

Five weeks later on October 4th, the news read: SPARTA BOOSTERS LAUNCH TRAILER FIRM New Corporation will Occupy Welch Plant for Mass Production of Trailers, Automotive Parts--Sparta Foundry Co Officials Solidly Behind Community's Latest Enterprise--The Sparta Coach and Body Company to be Capitalized at $125,000.00 Big headline for a big story!


(1) The engineering department

With great enthusiasm and high hopes for a successful venture, D.W. Atkinson was voted chairman of the board. Eight additional board directors were also named: A.A. Johnson, T.E. McFall, I.E. McGowan, Harold G Vaughan, "secretary treasurer" Erastus W Smith, Forrest Field, "president" E.C. Morine, and "vice president" J.G. McKenna. All of whom were among Sparta's movers-and-shakers, with the exceptions of Morine and McKenna, who each brought a considerable amount of industry experience to the table in their own right.


(2) Portion of the Sparta Coach and Body Co machine shop and tool room

Besides a seat on the board and the vice president title, J.G. McKenna would oversee both engineering and sales. "He has been closely identified with the trailer industry in this country since its conception. He was vice president of the Wolfe Body Company of Detroit and the designer of the Silver Dome line of coaches." Early on, Wolfe built truck bodies for Ford and Chevrolet. Wolfe began manufacturing travel trailers in 1932 and swiftly became the second largest in the industry.

Edwin Clifford Morine was a Nova Scotian, who in 1928, resided at Owosso, Michigan, where he was the founder and general manager of the Weatherproof Body Corp at Corunna. "This company in its heyday was the largest independent manufacturer of auto body parts in the state and employed over 800 men." Weatherproof was also well-known for their busses.

Daniel Webster Atkinson

Days later, on October 11th, the fledgling company lost its newly elected chairman of the board, Daniel Webster Atkinson, at the age of seventy-two. Born on December 27, 1862 at Portland in Jay County, Indiana, to Henry and Euphemia (Stratton) Atkinson, he married Emma Elizabeth Fetter in 1881. His children were Lulu "Lou" A Keller, Walter Atkinson, and Lois Pearl Burtch.


(3) Sparta men fabricating parts for the "Weatherproof Coach"

Daniel and his family arrived at Sparta prior to the enumeration of the 1900 federal census, at which time his profession was as a produce dealer. By 1910, he was involved in real estate and in 1920, Daniel was the Superintendent at Laughray Silo Company, plant No. 3 located along the railroad south of East Gardner and next to the Sparta Condensed Milk Company. Although "retired" by 1930, he was still involved with his business interests at the Piston Ring Factory, Handy Wacks, and of course, Sparta Coach and Body Company. For additional details on the Handy Wacks, see the bio of Sparta Notables member Lou Atkinson Keller.

Fellow board of directors member, Forrest Gaylor Field, was the husband of Daniel's sister, Minnie DeEtte (Atkinson) Field. Forrest was an engineer at Sparta Milling Company in 1910, became a self-employed drayman, and by 1930, a road building contractor.


(4) from left to right: T.E. "Mac" McFall with a folding yard stick, J.G. McKenna, & E.C. Morine

In a memorial tribute entitled D.W. Atkinson, his character and last efforts were praised: "The death of D.W. Atkinson is a distinct loss to the community. For almost forty years he took an active part in the business, civic and industrial affairs of the village. He loved to work and his work was well done. He stood for decency, idealism, service, progress and character. He was never known to shrink from any service that would prove beneficial to his large circle of friends and neighbors."

"D.W. Atkinson was a fighter! All through the more than three score and ten years of a very busy life, he never missed the opportunity of adding a step to his accomplishments. He believed in himself and no matter how many discouragements, disappointments and handicaps may have piled upon his efforts to do good, he kept on fighting. He was never known to surrender to negative mental attitudes."

"At the age of 72, he entered upon the threshold of the crowning effort of his varied contributions to the community, through the organization of the Sparta Coach and Body Company, of which he was elected to serve as chairman of the board. With a strong, vigorous and clear mind, he personally directed the building up of this new industry and it was largely through his indomitable will and conscientious work that the idea of such an organization became a reality."--H.J. Kurtz (18 Oct 1934)


(5) Storage in rear section of the coach with the seat cushions which also serve as the bed mattress

In spite of the loss, progress continued--just as D.W. Atkinson would have wanted.

By the first of November, a major hurdle was cleared: SPARTA COACH AND BODY CO. FINANCING IS LAUNCHED--Securities Exchange Corporation Undertakes Financing of Our New Industry and the stock provided needed start-up funding. Common stock would sell for $1 a share while the preferred stock cost $1.10 and was expected to pay up to 7% in dividends. In addition to the trailers, negotiations were "well underway for a considerable amount of automobile body woodwork with several body manufacturers and it is anticipated that the company will be in production on this phase of their business within the next two or three weeks and it is believed that the company should show a substantial profit from this phase of the business alone."

The Sentinel-Leader went on to say, "The plant and equipment have been purchased for a ridiculously low price." In reference to the participation of T.E. McFall, but without directly naming him, his involvement in marketing stock in 1929 for the Sparta Foundry Company was noted as "extremely successful" and the start-up capital raised for the Mid-West Refineries, Inc, which had tripled in value over the last nine months.


(6) Generous amount of storage in the front galley of the coach

By December 6th, a sales staff of twenty-one salesmen had been hired. E.C. Morine and director, Harold G Vaughan, brought their salesmen to a meeting of the Securities Exchange Corporation held at the prestigious Peninsular Club in Grand Rapids. Both men made well-received presentations and it was stated the "entire allotment of shares authorized for sale at this time will soon be over-subscribed," the local paper reported.

As promised, Sparta Coach and Body Company was quickly up and fully operational at what was initially called the "Weatherproof Factory". The facility boasted of an impressive "120,000 feet of manufacturing floor space, equipped with the most modern machine tools available for this class of manufacture," according to the detailed descriptions printed on the reverse of a set of promotional stereoscopic viewer cards dated from March of 1935.


(7) Sparta Coach and Body director, Harold G. Vaughan and his wife, Vivian, enjoy the spacious comfort of the full double-bed in the basic model

The engineering department image (1) depicted J.G. McKenna seated at the drafting desk in the foreground "Where every detail is thoroughly worked out before going into practice".

The photo (2) described as a "corner of the machine shop and tool room where special tools and parts are fabricated" (and at the top of this page) provides a fascinating glimpse of the men at work, a view of the inside the factory, and its belt drive system. The factory was equipped with its own 350 kilowatt power house.

Men dressed in warm coveralls and caps (3) were at work on the factory floor as they utilized special forms "on the machines for fabricating each individual part. This method insures precision and accurate duplication". Once finished, parts were transferred to a storage room where they remained until needed for the assembly line.


(8) The kitchen galley designed with meal prep in mind

Photographed inside a "Weatherproof Coach" manufactured at Sparta (4), "T.E. McFall, Chairman of the Board; J.G. McKenna, Vice-President and and E.C. Morine, President of the company shown in one of the coaches making a study of the new patented auxiliary beds. All of the parts for two beds are seen in the package on the table before them. These two auxiliary beds weigh approximately 20 pounds, and are so small that they may be stored in one of the drawers or most any compartment in the Coach." The company applied for and received several patents.

How intriguing and what an ingenious idea! From the size and appearance of the bundle displayed on the table, it seems these rods and fabric became a cot styled bed when put together, similar to an army cot, but constructed from lighter materials. The compact auxiliary beds were most likely best suited for children or a small adult, which was sure to increase the trailer's appeal for use on family vacations.

The same area of the coach where the three gentlemen were seated in an earlier image, now with the table dismantled (5) provided "a view of the rear of the coach in a convertible model, showing the divan beds folded as they would be in travel; with the doors to the wardrobes and other compartments open to give you an idea of the vast amount of storage space available."


(9) Convertible model beds on either side of the entrance to the galley

Quite a clever, well conceived design with closets to hang clothes wrinkle free, cabinets, and a bank of drawers to provide the travelers with ample room.

The efficient modern galley (6) was located in the forward section of the coach. It was well-lit by both windows and electrical lighting. "This view is identical in both the standard and the convertible Nomad models. You will note that all compartments are full size and provide even more room for the purpose than found in the average home." Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but when one considers the compact nature of the travel coach, they did a great job of providing functional storage.

How interesting to see a roasting pan in the galley's bottom drawer!

Sleeping accommodations (7) were first rate. "Showing the full double bed arrangement in the standard two-passenger job. This model may also be equipped with the auxiliary beds... thereby providing sleeping accommodations for two more people. This model differs from the convertible only in sleeping arrangement."


(10) Enjoying a hearty breakfast in style!

"The view of the galley shows the liberal sized work table extended," which slid out from the front portion of the cabinetry, "and the real beauty and neat arrangement of this compartment," as the man (8) who prepared a fish demonstrated.

On the larger coach model, (9) there were side sections which expanded to accommodate the two double-bed configuration that enabled the coach to sleep four adults. Again, with the auxiliary beds, it was considered a six-sleeper. "A view looking across the extended bed compartments in the convertible model to give a further idea of the room provided in this convertible job."


(11) Mr McKenna exits the larger convertible coach

Four adults seated at the table in a photo (10) that "shows a breakfast scene. Here we see a breakfast nook as liberal in size, and beautiful in appointments as those found in the modern home." Behind the seating, a portion of the expanded areas for the full sized beds are visible. The couples in these photos were likely company board of director members along with their wives. In the foreground were Harold and Vivian Vaughan. Do you recognize the other couple?

The Weatherproof Coach (11) was the only trailer to feature a full height door on the side. It also included "hydraulically operated jacks to bring the coach to a level position even on uneven ground." From its aerodynamic nose to interior fine craftsman finishes, it was innovative.

"With a Weatherproof Coach you go where you choose, regardless of grades and road conditions. In fact, this coach can be taken up grades, through sand, mud, etc., where the automobile pulling it could not go by itself. As anyone knows, a car's pulling power is limited to its traction. When the wheels start slipping, that is its limit. Likewise the limit of its brake function is governed by its skidding. The extra weight of approximately 500 pounds on the rear wheels of the car increase the traction in a greater proportion than the extra power needed to pull the car. The same relation exists in the braking function of the car brakes, inasmuch a the extra weight retards skidding."

Sparta Coach and Body Company certainly built a quality product with potential for a bright future. But all was not smooth sailing.


"Weatherproof Coaches conform to the lines of the modern automobile and provide an appearance not equalled in any other coach on the market."

With so many powerful men and big personalities involved, it wasn't long before differences of opinion bubbled into discord. The friction and conflict was short lived--it was resolved by the close of May 1935 as the local paper reported:

One of the early purchasers of a "Weatherproof" Coach, which slept six, was Sparta businessman owner of Badgerow Store and Gas Station, Charlie Badgerow. Always interested in new inventions and gadgets, he bought what he referred to as "McFall's trailer" to use on trips to visit family located around the state and to take his five grandsons--Charles, Paul, Jim, Cart, and Gordon, or other family members, on fishing and camping excursions.

I have no doubt that Charlie got it at a very good price. Mr. McFall also gave him the set of stereoscopic cards.

Thwaites X-Ray Machine

It is said, "All good things must come to an end," and the Sparta Coach and Body Company was no exception. A little more than one year after the fledgling endeavor basked in the fanfare of its founding, it had arrived at the end of its journey. "An original plan conceived by the local Chamber of Commerce received a temporary set-back when the proposition to bond the village for $20,000 to purchase the Welch-Wilmarth plant for manufacturing purposes was defeated by a slim margin of five votes." T. E. McFall provided the loan in exchange for a mortgage on the plant and equipment as security, however, the company was unable to meet their financial obligations. Consequently, on April 30, 1936, the headline: TO LIQUIDATE THE SPARTA COACH AND BODY COMPANY was splashed across the front page of The Sentinel-Leader. It was announced that sealed bids for the plant, buildings, acreage, machinery, and equipment would be accepted on the first of June—with everything going to the highest bidder.


T.E. "Mac" McFall

Already, Wolverine Trailer Coach Company, operated by John R. Shooks and Forrest G. Field, along with Thwaites Ray Machine Company occupied portions of the massive manufacturing facility. T.E. "Mac" McFall was instrumental in bringing new manufacturing businesses to Sparta. His involvement included the position of vice president and manager of the Thwaites Ray Machine Company.


The Thwaites X-Ray machine made at Sparta

A first shipment of Sparta-made X-Ray machines was announced on June 11th, to fill orders from Ohio.

"Mr. Shooks came to Sparta in October, 1934, as office manager for the Sparta Coach and Body Company, which he later served as assistant secretary," The Sentinel-Leader wrote. "He has had many years of business experience and before coming to Sparta was associated with the Hart Mirror Plate Company of Grand Rapids. Mr. Shooks is married, has one daughter, and resides on Orchard Drive." Shortly after this appeared in print, he left Wolverine and took a position with Thwaites.

By June 18th, it was announced Forrest Field and his wife had purchased the north end of the massive industrial building and Thwaites, the south end. Before long, Handy Wacks relocated into the remaining portion until they constructed their own new facility nearby. Previously, both the Thwaites and Handy Wacks companies had operated in Grand Rapids.

Dr. William Henderson Thwaites

The future inventor was born on 4 Feb 1885 to James & Leila Irene (Henderson) Thwaites at Long Rapids, Alpena, Michigan. In 1910, the family was enumerated at Ann Arbor where William studied dentistry at the University of Michigan and then graduated the following year. In 1913, he wed Grace Murray at Grand Rapids and by the 1920 Federal Census, he had become a self-employed dentist.

Dr Thwaites

Dr. William H. Thwaites

Wilhelm Conrad Röentgen, a German mechanical engineer and physicist, discovered X-Rays on November 8, 1895, and in 1901 was subsequently awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics. Two weeks later, two Germans produced the first dental radiographs, with exposures of twenty-five and thirty minutes. It was noted some irradiated patients experienced "a loss of hair". Others soon developed improvements, such as a focus tube which lessened the exposure time to nine minutes and resulted in a clearer image.

Unaware of the dangers, it wasn't long before researchers, dentists, and their assistants began experiencing radiation burns, eye damage, poisoning, and cancer. One unfortunate victim was an assistant to Thomas Edison named Clarence Madison Daily. He developed cancer in both of his hands requiring the amputation of his arms--to no avail--and his life was claimed by the insidious disease in 1904.

Edison immediately halted his experiments with X-Rays.

That same year, a Boston dentist, William H. Rollins, spoke out on the urgent need to protect workers and patients from radiation in his published articles. Unfortunately, neither his contemporaries nor the government heeded his warnings.


An advertisement from November 1924 for the Thwaites X-Ray machine from a trade publication, The Dental Summary: A Journal of Practical Dentistry

While he studied at the University of Michigan Dental school in 1909, Thwaites became fascinated by the field and served as assistant to Dr. Loefler, head of the X-Ray department. Throughout his career Dr. Thwaites was viewed as a pioneer in the study and use of X-Ray in dentistry. To make the machine and procedure safer was one of his driving goals. According to an article from The Dental Register: The Magazine of Dentistry in February 1923, "The safety of this outfit is obtained by eliminating the ground wire which in other machines is supposed to be a safety device. In the Thwaites, however, the elimination of the ground wire makes it safe. There is no static in the machine from the induction coil, therefore no charge of electricity seeking to ground through adjacent objects." It was claimed that neither the patient nor operator of a Thwaites unit was exposed to the "ordinary dangers accompanying X-Ray operations".

By 1925, Thwaites X-Ray Company was promoting its $800.00 units with "80,000 volts" which used a "Coolidge tube and transformer" that also had "medical capacity" use for "lung, hip, or abdominal pictures". Other models sold for as little as $395.00. Thwaites products were sold across the nation and in foreign countries.

Regrettably, business at the Sparta plant had not become as robust as hoped. Consequently, by 1938, Dr. Thwaites left the manufacturing company and focused on his dentistry practice from his home at 159 Lafayette Ave NE in Grand Rapids. Decades of work with radiation took a toll and the dentist developed cancer of the nose, for which he underwent surgery in 1944, before it spread to his neck. On the 28th of September, 1945, it claimed his life.

William Albert "Bert" Young

Bert was born on May 28, 1897, the son of William A. & Ida May (Powers) Young. The event took place at Ferry in Oceana county, Michigan.

Relocated to Sparta, Bert was well-liked and his classmates elected him president of the Class of 1916. Shortly after graduation, from May 1917 until March of 1920, he served as a sergeant within the Medical Department of the US Army. On leave in May of 1918, he married Hilda Alberta, the daughter of Albert H. & Nora (Brown) Meeker of Sparta. The couple would have three children: Betty Jane, Jack Wendell, and William Albert III.

The Youngs rented a home on North Union, owned by Walter Bloomer. On December 12, 1935, they moved into the lovely Victorian Laurence Johnson house at the northwest corner of Washington and Centennial Avenue.


Bert Young

"Mr. Young, who is a graduate of Sparta high school and has maintained his residence here for a number of years, has recently been appointed Director of Sales for Thwaites Ray Company," The Sentinel-Leader reported on June 11, 1936. "(He) spent six years as a senior bacteriologist in the United States Public Health Service and during the past twelve years has devoted his entire time in sales promotion activities, specializing in organization and personal selling. He has also been district sales manager for several years with the West Bend Aluminum Company of Wisconsin and more recently Regional Sales Manager of the Mackey Publishing Company, Chicago."

Once the Thwaites Company dissolved, Bert returned to a sales position. In August of 1939, the family took a vacation to Montana and upon their return moved from their home on Centennial to his 87-year old father-in-law Albert Meeker's home at 131 S. Union St. to care for him. After his passing in 1942, the Young family resided at 42 Centennial Avenue. Their son, Cadet Jack W. Young, enlisted to serve during WWII as an aviator but suffered a tragic accident while training in California. (See the Veterans page for his memorial.)

Dr. Charles Sherman Miller

John Jakob & Mary (Ermer) Miller welcomed their newborn son, Charles, on 27 Oct 1895 at Putnam county, Ohio. The father died in 1899 and left his widow with five young children to raise on her own. In 1900, the family relocated to a farm at Wise township in Isabella county, Michigan. Charles became a dentist, married Mabel M. Lentz, and began his practice at Chesaning, Saginaw county by January 12, 1920, when the US census was recorded.


Dr. C.S. Miller's purchase of the locally made X-Ray machine

The young dentist arrived at Sparta in April of 1923 to begin a well-respected practice which would span thirty-five years. "I went to work for Dr. C.S. Miller in 1923 to 1925, a dentist, and he taught me how to make plates, gold inlays, and to do his laboratory work. I worked for him for $15 a week," my grandmother, Faye Badgerow, wrote in her memoirs about employment before her 1926 marriage to Clarence Fullmer and the establishment of her own beauty salon business at Sparta. "Later, he raised me to $20 a week."

Enthusiasm among those in the dental profession for Thwaites' X-Ray machines was high—as Sparta's own Dr Charles Miller stepped forward to announce his purchase of the first ray machine produced locally with a front page article in The Sentinel-Leader. The item published on June 25, 1936, read: "Dr. C.S. Miller, local dentist, achieved the honor of being the first purchaser of one of the new Thwaites' Ray machines which are now being manufactured in Sparta." He had previously used earlier models in his practice.

The Miller family resided at 319 S. State Street at and previous to the 1940 Federal Census. A son, Harold Charles Miller, served in the Navy during World War II, then later, in September 1958, joined his father’s Sparta dentistry practice.



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