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Former, current students unwrap history found in time capsule

New capsule being constructed

Sparta — The opening of a time capsule found inside a former Sparta Middle School building brought middle school students back in time, while those who attended Sparta High School in the late 1950s reminisced.  

Left in 1959 near the cornerstone was a metal box, in what had been the high school until the current facility opened. The building was then used as the middle school through the spring of 2020. It is currently under renovation and being transformed into an Early Childhood Education Center.

Students were joined for the opening of the capsule by government teacher Mar Higgins, Superintendent Pete Bush, a member of the Sparta Historical Society and two students who attended the school in 1959.

“I vaguely remember we had a meeting before we graduated and they mentioned a time capsule,” said 1959 graduate Doug Pinckney. “We talked about what was inside, but I really don’t remember.”

A guess by 1960 graduate Hugh Leach was correct: copies of the “Sentinel Leader,” the local daily newspaper that published from 1931 to 1965.

Seventh-graders (from left) Tyler Pangborn, Justin Bradford and Jenna Gardner take a close look at the time capsule container

Contents Revealed

Excitement built as former and current students gathered around a table holding the rather plain tin box, flaking with rust. Most of the contents inside had been carefully, generously, wrapped in cellophane and students took turns unearthing the contents. 

“Oh my, look: an index of what’s in here, just like the one we made,” said seventh-grader Tyler Pangborn, referring to a time capsule they are now putting together for the new middle school. 

Inside were a 1959 yearbook, photos, copies of lesson plans, an athletic handbook, a copy of the district master plan, a 1959 penny and a sample diploma.

Familiar local names jumped off pages. “Look, it’s a Bradford,” said one student. 

“Bet he’s related to me,” said seventh-grader Justin Bradford.

Offered Pinckney: “Well, Len Bradford was president of the school board back then.”

Some of the contents of the 1959 time capsule

“Yup, that’s my grandpa,” Justin said.

Natalie Bitely pointed to pictures of 1959 grads Sonja Langland and Jerry Johnson. “I found both my grandma and my grandpa,” said the eighth-grader. 

“And we found Doug (Pinckney),” said another student. 

Higgins and Bush explained how single pane windows of years ago made for cold classrooms, so many were dark without many windows. The newer buildings such as the middle school once again have large, double-paned windows for extra light and warmth.

Copies of school assignments interested current students, intrigued by the ditto paper on which they were printed.

“We used to call it teacher disease,” said Higgins. “Our hands were always blue, stained with ink.”

Bush particularly enjoyed seeing a copy of the district’s yearly master schedule. “It is the exact same format we use today,” he said. “It looks like it has never changed.”

A poorly used courtyard was another topic of interest. “The plan was for kids to cross over it from class to class,” Pinckney said. “We only used it for about a week.”

Superintendent Pete Bush and teacher Mar Higgins enjoy looking through the contents of the recently opened time capsule

Recalled Higgins: “I think it got used for pizza parties and balloon fights on occasion.”

Added a current student: “I think I was ever only out there once.”

Students were amazed at how well preserved papers found double and triple wrapped in cellophane were, and spent time examining the box itself. 

They commented on the student newspaper, named “The Echo”, laughed as they read class wills and expressed surprise that the yearbook printed the words to the class song. “I wonder who decided on this one,” said one student. “And did they actually sing it?” added another. 

None of it surprised local historian Larry Carter, who was delighted by both the display and the reactions.

“I just love the juxtaposition of young people looking at really old stuff,” he said as he observed Pinckney and Leach interact with students. “Their reactions are interesting. I thought to myself as they were discussing, ‘Of course they published the class song; everyone had a class song.’” 

The index for a new time capsule put together by current middle-school students

What’s Next

The discovery of the 1959 capsule, found during renovation of the former middle and high school building, led government teacher Mar Higgins and the student government team to begin planning a time capsule of their own. 

Students were eager to share the items they were collecting to put in the one they were preparing, such as a yearbook, photos, Chromebook, earpods, a pair of Vans shoes, a “Sparta Unite” T-shirt, pictures of popular phones, and a face mask with an article about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contents of both the recently opened time capsule and the one prepared by current students will be on display at the new middle school for about the next six months, Bush said. “We are hoping someday soon we will be able to show off this beautiful facility to the public.”

Opening of the new time capsule is estimated to be in another six decades. “Whenever this building stops being used as a middle school,” Bush said.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter 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. Read Janice's full bio

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