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Learning about home, at home

Even before the Continuity of Learning Plan was put in place by Sparta Area Schools, Sparta Middle School eighth grader Abigail Duff earned high marks in at least one of her middle school classes. And photography teacher Steve Duyck found her photo essay — one of the suggested enrichment assignments from his class — “quite remarkable.”

Last August, soon after Abigail and her family moved into their new home — an old farmhouse just outside the district, in Conklin —  she put a ‘“Black Lives Matter” sign in the yard.

The Duff children have been enrolled in Sparta since kindergarten and plan to remain in Sparta schools.

“Little did we know that the builder of this house back in 1863 fought for black lives,” Abigail said. “Every professional that came to our house was convinced that our house was not built in 1920,” which was what they had been told before the purchase of the property.

Abigail’s mom, Jennifer Smith, also had a feeling that the house was older than they first thought, and started researching its history. “Turns out the guy who lived here served in the Civil War, and afterwards came back and actually added onto the house,” Abigail said. 

 “Our house has a great story behind it, and what better way to tell it than through photography.”

— Abigail Duff, photographer

Smith said historians agree that the house was built in 1865 by Civil War veteran James Leroy Stringham. She used the Chester Township History and Genealogy website and Find a Grave for her research.

But the house had more stories to tell. A pair of wooden crutches was found in the attic. “We still aren’t sure if they belonged to the Civil War time, or if they were left by someone else who lived here,” said Abigail. “We do know that some people moved here from the Netherlands, and somebody who lived here enlisted in WWI.”

Old farm equipment on the property also gives clues to the past. 

Abigail Duff’s brother Beckett Duff, a sixth grader, keeps up on his school work (courtesy)

The Story in Pictures

Abigail’s four-page photo essay says a lot: Page one sets the scene in words. Next are photos of architectural details, the crutches and old farming equipment found on the property. 

“My mom is always sharing new information that she has found, so when I found out that I had to do a photo essay my mind immediately went to the history of our house,” said Abigail. “Our house has a great story behind it, and what better way to tell it than through photography.”’

Abigail took photos of the house and around the property, and hopes that her work will help preserve that story. “I know how much my mom loves the history of this place, but I also feel like I was doing the people who lived here good by sharing their heroic stories,” she said.

History, Now Her Story

As it did for everyone, life changed quickly for Abigail and her brother Beckett, a sixth grader, when schools were closed in March at first temporarily, with suggested enrichment activities coming from their teachers and the school district.

“We sleep in longer than we used to,” Abigail admitted. “On most days we get up later than we did when we had to go to school, but as soon as we get up our mother makes sure we check our school work schedules and get it done. Then, after our household chores, we mostly chill out.”

While they have continued to get their schoolwork done, they know they are missing out on many planned activities such as the eighth-grade trip and honors night. Abigail had just been given a lead role in a spring play and now will miss that experience. Both siblings expressed sadness about having to miss the band festival. 

“It would have been my last one,” she said. 

At Ease

by Abigail Duff

A young man, James Leroy Stringham moved from New York at 21 to Muskegon County. In 1862, he got drafted in the Civil War. His grandfather was in the Revolutionary War. Luckily, he made it through and was discharged in 1865 back to his home, where he found a wife, Rachel Compton. James and Rachel built themselves a home of which they both died peacefully in. Later Jacob Denhof and his wife Wilhemina moved from the Netherlands in search of better farming land. They bought the house and 80 acres of land from James L Stringham. Two of Jacob’s many sons were soldiers in World War 1. Nicholas Denhof entered the war and never came out. He died at age 20, serving in France. His other son, Jacob N Denhof was also drafted in World War 1 and made it out alive. These pictures show the struggles that these families had to go through.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst was a reporter for SNN covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts.


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