LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN:  Faith, Family, & Community in Sparta

by Jeff Rogers

 

 

I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  

I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.

– Abraham Lincoln

 

 

No truer words could be spoken of our patriarch of the Rogers family – William A. Rogers – than these lines penned nearly two centuries ago by President Lincoln.  

 

The pride and dedication my great-grandfather had in and to the Village of Sparta not only served his family and the community well throughout his 80 years of life, but continues to serve as a timeless benchmark for the entire extended Rogers family that now follows in his footsteps – more than 50 years after his passing.

 

On one hand, it’s difficult to memorialize someone I never had the chance to meet.  My great-grandfather passed away in 1965 – three years before I was born. On the other hand, however, it seems like I’d known him first-hand and that we’d somehow spent many a year together.  For while he was not worshipped or idolized in our family, he was spoken of often – fondly – and with deep respect.

 

William A. Rogers was born in 1885 – on a farm near Cadillac, Michigan.  As a young man, he purchased a farm in the area and tilled the soil single-handedly for a number of seasons.  Providentially – through connections I don’t believe anyone in our family knows – he met Lusina Ballard, who was a school teacher in Sparta.  Having moved to Sparta from New York in 1850, it was her family who’d first settled Ballard’s Corner – southwest of Sparta at 10 Mile Road and Baumhoff.  

 

They married in 1908 and spent the first two and a half years of married life in Cadillac – where as a profession, he delivered mail by horse and buggy.  Then in 1911, for both family and business reasons, they moved back to her hometown of Sparta. By that point, they’d been blessed with two children: sons Charles and Melvin Rogers (the latter of whom was my grandfather) – followed later by daughters Nevamae, Flora Helen, and Loreen.  All five of their children were educated in Sparta and graduated from Sparta High School.

 

From a business standpoint in Sparta, he operated a grocery store from 1911-1912, then worked at the Shelby Field Hardware Store from 1912-1914 – around the start of World War I.  Then later in 1914, he joined and purchased stock in J.C. Ballard & Co. – which had recently purchased the Shelby Field Hardware Store. In 1928, he formed the Wm. A. Rogers & Co., and at the same time, acquired the Chas. C. Friz Hardware.  

 

On a brief modern side note – from its’ original location on the southeast corner of Division and Washington Streets to the present location on Division west of Washington St., Rogers Hardware would remain in the family for four generations and 91 years – from 1928 through 2019 – under the steady leadership of William & Lusina Rogers, Mel & Evelyn Rogers, Al & Joan Rogers, and Paul & Becky Rogers.  

 

Going back to those earlier days, William purchased the former livery stable in the 1920s (also on Division St., just east of the current Fenton Records and dry cleaners’ buildings) – where he would also operate a John Deere tractor dealership from the 1920s through the 1960s.  

 

While certainly a businessman and entrepreneurial by nature, one of the traits about him that I’ve heard consistently throughout my fifty years was his deep sense of community.  Although his business skills and successes were certainly important, it was his love for the people of Sparta that eclipsed any success he had in the business world. Said differently, his business was his mission.

 

Early-on, he took an avid interest in and invested much of his time and personal energy investing in the Sparta community.  Some of those involvements include:

 

  • Sparta Baptist Church

    • An active member for 54 years

    • Served as a deacon, trustee, and Sunday school superintendent (the latter for 25 consecutive years).

 

  • Sparta Village Council

    • Served for 12 years

 

  • Mayor of Sparta

    • Served for four terms

 

  • Sparta Board of Education

    • Served for 14 years

 

  • Sparta Parent Teacher Association

    • Became the first Sparta PTA president in 1922

    • His wife Lusina also served as PTA president

 

  • Sparta State Bank (now ChoiceOne Bank)

    • Served on board of directors from 1948 – 1965

 

  • Rotary Club of Sparta

    • Was one of the club’s charter members – when Sparta newspaperman H.J. Kurtz founded the Rotary Club of Sparta in April 1937.

    • Rotary’s two official mottos – dating from its’ founding in 1905 – exemplified the priorities of William A. Rogers well:

 

      • Service Above Self

      • One Profits Most Who Serves Best

 

    • As a side note, both my grandfather Melvin and father Jack were active members of the Rotary Club of Sparta. In 1996, Floyd Schut sponsored me as a member of the Sparta club – where I served as president from 2004-2005 – and I remain a member of the Rotary Club (downtown Grand Rapids) to this day.  Some family traditions are deeply rooted. For me, the spark of my involvement as a Rotarian was that fourth-generation family legacy. But that was fanned into flame by my own sense of commitment to community – a sense which originated with the example set by my great-grandfather.

 

  • Sparta Community Foundation

    • Served as president

 

  • Sparta Chamber of Commerce

    • Served on board for 16 years.

  • Greenwood Cemetery

    • Prior to being acquired by the township, William owned and managed this cemetery on W. Division Street in Sparta for decades.

 

  • Community fundraising

    • Served as chairman of many Red Cross, War Bond, and Community Chest fundraising campaigns throughout the 1910s – 1950s.

 

I think it’s fair to say he would have invested his time in all these activities, over all those years, simply because it was the right thing to do.  Fortunately, however, he lived in Sparta – a community that isn’t your ordinary town. My great-grandfather loved Sparta – and it showed. But his love and dedication to Sparta was matched by a village who genuinely appreciated him as well. 

 

In 1952, William A. Rogers was chosen as Sparta's "Man of the Year."  Then in 1965 - the year of his passing - the "William A. Rogers Memorial Park" (Rogers Park) was donated and dedicated in his honor by the Sparta Community Foundation.

 

As was evidenced by his work and time spent with childhood and education-related endeavors – it’s clear that marriage and family were very important to he and Lusina.  They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on September 21, 1958 – with a celebration at Sparta Baptist Church.  

 

William A. Rogers passed away in Sparta – the community in which he had arrived 54 years earlier - on August 18, 1965 at 80 years old.  Funeral services were held at Sparta Baptist Church on Saturday, August 21, 1965 and interment was in Greenwood Cemetery.  

So, while his death preceded my birth by three years, I still feel like I knew of the man he was.  And in closing, I’ll share one brief example. In the late 1970s, my dad, Jack Rogers, and I were driving down M-37 – heading back to Sparta from northern Michigan one Saturday evening.  As he often did, my dad would regale me with stories of his idyllic childhood growing up in Sparta – stories that seemed to have been taken straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting – and fond memories all.  

 

I’ll never forget this one particular evening, however, when he spoke of his grandfather William.  With tears in his eyes and his voice choked with emotion as he drove, he spoke of the humble generosity his grandfather had quietly shown to others during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  For as the owner of a hardware and appliance store, many of his customers had purchased their stoves, refrigerators, and furnaces on credit – but as the depression worsened, they could no longer make their monthly payments.  

 

So while he had every right legally and financially to garnish their wages, place a lien on their house, or repossess those appliances – he also knew that each customer represented a family who was counting on those very appliances to keep their food cold, to make meals for their children, or to keep their homes warm in the winter.  And these weren’t just any anonymous families – these were Sparta families.  Families in which he often knew each member by name – saw them at the football game on Friday night – or perhaps sat next to them in church on Sunday morning.  So, without any fanfare or attention drawn to himself, he merely extended the due dates on those accounts – as necessary – until those families were able to get back on their financial feet.  And in some rare cases, when it was clear they would never be able to do so, he’d often forgive their debt outright.

 

As the saying goes, “blessed to be a blessing” – and William A. Rogers took that to heart.  For whatever success he had in business throughout his professional life in Sparta, he knew it wasn’t just meant for himself.  After all, it was because these customers had patronized his store in the first place that he could make a living. Thus, if the time came when those customers found themselves in a challenging situation later on, he considered repaying the favor (by extending them grace) the very least he could do.

 

Were he here today, I’m confident he’d be the first to say that any grace or generosity he’d shown to others throughout his life wasn’t because of how good a man he was.  Rather, it was merely a reflection of how gracious and generous God was – and had been to him throughout his life.

 

So, while William A. Rogers was named Sparta’s “Man of the Year” in 1952, that’s not the entire story.  This man may have helped make Sparta, but to a far greater degree, Sparta made this man. And to this day, the Rogers family continues to be shaped by, indebted to, and enthusiastic for the people and place of our hometown.

 

That’s what makes the Sparta community so special – and it’s also the reason we can celebrate so many other Sparta families like ours.  With a history as a village dating back to 1846, I’m confident we’ll have no shortage of people to honor and stories to tell for years and years to come.

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