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.
& 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."
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."
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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."
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.
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:
- T.E. McFall Heads Management of Sparta Coach and Body Co.
TWO PROMOTERS RESIGN FOR GOOD OF CORPORATION; AL BJORK BECOMES DIRECTOR
T.E. McFall, Sparta's industrial magnate, has assumed the managerial duties of the Sparta Coach and Body Co., according to an announcement issued this week by the officers and directors of the company.
Mr McFall is chairman of the board of directors of the company, president of Sparta Foundry Co., and vice-president of Mid-West Refining Co.
The change was necessitated when resignations of E.C. Morine, general manager and J.G. McKenna, chief engineer of the organization, were accepted by the directors at a recent meeting, for the good of the company.
While Mr McKenna is no longer associated with the organization, Mr Morine still retains his position as president and director of the company.
Under Mr McFall's direction the company anticipates a number of changes which will effect the design of future "Weatherproof" Coaches and speed up production.
Al Bjork has been appointed a director of the company to fill the vacancy created through Mr McKenna's resignation.
A report recently issued by the company to the shareholders listed the factory buildings and all machinery as paid in full and many other satisfactory results attained for the small amount of money expended to date.
Other officers and directors of the company supporting Mr McFall are August A Johnson, Harold G Vaughan, E.W. Smith, Forrest G Field, and Dr J.E. Bolender.
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.
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160 E. Division St.
Sparta MI 49345
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