In Search of Lost Civilizations

The old family homestead along Route 66 in western Arizona is slowly being reclaimed by nature

I credit Ed Edgerton, founder of Ed’s Camp, and John Lloyd Stephens, the pioneering Central American archaeologist, for igniting a life long fascination for forgotten civilizations, lost city’s, stories of lost treasure, and a passion for exploration. We had recently relocated from Michigan to the wilds of Arizona. For a young boy transplanted from Michigan, and the hills of Tennessee everything about our new home on the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66 in the shadow of the Black Mountains was wild, wondrous and strange, especially the fascinating and colorful characters that inhabited the vast and inhospitable desert.

For reasons never understood, the weathered old proprietor of Ed’s Camp took a shine to me, offered me a job, my first, and began sharing his vast knowledge of the desert in northwestern Arizona. He also began loaning me books such as Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán written by John Lloyd Stephens. It was an education that I was to young to fully appreciate.

Author Jim Hinckley at the airport in Frankfurt Germany. Photo courtesy Sylvia Hoehn

Fast forward fifty years. My curiosity and fascination with the empty places, the forgotten history, and lost civilizations is unabated. And even though I never fulfilled the childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist, and have yet to explore the ancient city’s hidden in the jungles of the Yucatan, I have had some pretty amazing adventures and exploits; trying my hand as a saddle bronc rider, exploring the ruins of castles on the Rhine in Germany and cliff dwellings on the Gila River, hands on study of the National Old Trails Road and Route 66, and countless road trips. Best of all, for 36 years, these adventures have been shared with my dearest friend.

There is tremendous satisfaction in the making of new discoveries, and sharing those discoveries with people who have a fascination for forgotten history, a cornerstone at Jim Hinckley’s America. It was research for the presentation series In The Beginning that I debut at the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan on October 12 that led to my latest discovery, a forgotten company that was once a leader in communications technology, and the manufacturer of appliances that were Art Deco masterpieces.

Wikimedia commons

The company that would evolve into Sparton opened in the last months of 1900 as a subsidiary of Withington, Cooley & Co., a Jackson, Michigan based manufacturer of farm implements. The parent company was started by Civil War General William H. Withington. The next stage of the company’s evolution was the hiring of William “Cap” Sparks as a bookkeeper, and reorganization of the company as Sparks-Withington Co. As Jackson was a hub of automobile manufacturing with several companies hardhearted in the city, it was only logical that Sparks-Withington Co. would develop automotive components. In 1909 the company started making radiator cooling fan assemblies, and two years later introduced the first electric car horn under the Sparton name which was adopted by the Hudson Automobile Company. By 1920 more than 45 manufacturers used horns manufactured by the company.

An early Sparton radio advertisement – Wikimedia Commons

During WWI the company produced an array of military equipment including gas alarms and steel helmets. Then, in 1919, Sparks-Withington turned its research and manufacturing resources to an embryonic new industry – radio. In 1926 the company introduced the first push button radio and  “electric eye” tuning. Business boomed that the company leased space in the long dormant Jackson Automobile Co. factory on Horton Street and E. Michigan Avenue. The following year the company acquired the former manufacturing facilities for the Briscoe automobile. By the dawning of the Great Depression, the company was the largest employer in Jackson, a small city with dozens of manufacturing companies.

Throughout the hard economic times of the 1930’s, the company continued to dominate the home radio market. In addition to the manufacture of quality products, the company produced stylish pieces that were more than mere appliances. They were artistic masterpieces created by gifted industrial designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague. Today pristine examples of the mirrored Nocturne Model 1186 manufactured in 1935, and the model 558 “sled” command high prices from passionate collectors of Sparton products.

In 1939, Sparks-Withington, as they had in 1919, turned their focus toward development of an exciting new technology. The company was a pioneer in the technology and field testing of television receivers, and after WWII, Sparks-Withington initiated full-scale production of black and white televisions by 1948. Color sets followed five years later. In 1956 the company reorganized as Sparton, and began focusing entirely on fulfilling a variety of military contracts. In 2009, the company that had branched into medical equipment abandoned its roots, and relocated to Florida and Vietnam. It was truly the end of an era. It was also another milestone that marked the end of a civilization.

The Sparton “sled.” Wikimedia Commons

For almost a century the small city of Jackson had been a center of diverse industrial manufacturing. The companies headquartered there were leaders in technological development. They provided fertile ground for legions of inventors with vision. Thousands of workers held steady jobs for decades. Many were first generation immigrants that embraced their new home, and the opportunities made available to them. They bought homes, frequented the neighborhood taverns, paid taxes, raised families, went on hunting trips in northern Michigan and the UP, and retired with pensions. They belonged to lodges and bowling leagues. Their sons followed in their footsteps. In some instances their grandchildren worked in the factories that had opened in 1910, 1920, or 1930, factories that had played a role as the arsenal of democracy in WWII.

Is the Sparton Nocturne manufactured in 1935 the ultimate Art Deco radio? Wikimedia Commons

For better or for worse, the Jackson and the America of the early 21st century bears little to no resemblance to what either one was in the first decades of the previous century. The America of that era is a lost civilization. Perhaps that is the root of many of our ills today. We have forgotten that in city’s like Jackson in 1919, its citizens and workers were well aware of their past, but their eye was on the future. They embraced and fueled changing times, they adapted. They learned new skills and held firmly to traditions.

I am honored to be kicking off the fall speakers series at the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson. I do hope that this fledgling museum will succeed in its goal to preserve Jackson’s rich industrial heritage. I do hope that this complex will inspire a new generation of dreamers, of visionaries, and of entrepreneurs.

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jimhinckleysamerica

Jim Hinckley's America is a grand adventure on the back roads and two lane highways. It is an odyssey seasoned with fascinating people, and memory making discoveries. As made evident by the publication of fourteen books on subjects as diverse as diverse as Ghost Towns of the Southwest, The Illustrated History of the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, Travel Route 66, Backroads of Arizona, and The Route 66 Encyclopedia, I enjoy sharing adventures and helping people plan for their own memory making journeys.

Thank you, shared adventures are the best adventures.

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