By Judy Reed
Thousands of people will flock to Salisbury Park in Sand Lake for the 141st annual July 4 celebration from July 1-4. This year’s celebration is titled “Looking back.” Many happy moments are cherished by those who have romped, played and celebrated there. But how many people actually know the rich history behind the park and the man it was named for?
The history of the park dates back to the founding fathers of Sand Lake. The first settlers began arriving in the 1850s when the land was still an unbroken wilderness. They began to cut and burn the lofty pines to clear the land for crops. Due to lack of transportation, there was no way to market the timber.
According to “The Sand Lake Story,” published in 1969 and sponsored by the Sand Lake Chamber of Commerce, a man named Robert Salisbury bought land in section 5 of Nelson Township in 1868. A year later, in 1869, the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad came through, and Sand Lake was born. Salisbury then set up a mill on the east side of Sand Lake.
In 1870, Salisbury was named the first official postmaster of Sand Lake. He distributed the mail from his mill, which soon became a hub of activity, as the fast-growing population trekked through the woods to find the post office, anxious to communicate with loved ones far away.
As the town grew, Salisbury and others wanted to bring order to the community. In 1871, Salisbury and Fred Wetmore ordered a plat of a village to be designed by William Thornton of Rockford. A block in the center was left open for a park to be named after Salisbury. He left the area in 1872, after selling his mill to Frank Seeley, who had lost his own mill in a fire.
The first community project embarked on by the young people of the town focused on the park. A series of parties was held in the parlor of the Sand lake House to raise money to clear the old stumps from the park and plant Maple trees. Anyone who donated a dollar was entitled to name a tree. Enough money was raised, and Charles and Wood Simpson were hired to blast out the stumps.
The young Maple trees were soon planted but it was quickly realized that they had an unlikely enemy—the cows that grazed in the park. The saplings were protected with the use of stakes and string.
At one time, there was a plan to change the boundary lines of the townships in upper Kent County. The intent was to create a new county, of which Sand Lake might be the seat. When the plan was scrapped, the opening in the park, which had been left for a courthouse, was turned into a baseball diamond. It was reported to be the scene of much cussing when opposing ball players lost the ball in the leaves of the towering maples.
For years the park has been the center of merrymaking. Veterans of the Civil War invited friends and old cronies to a week of reunion in tents at the park, as the whole countryside helped celebrate. Refrains of old Civil War tunes could be heard day and night during the celebrations. The annual Old Settler’s picnic drew crowds from the surrounding areas on a Thursday in August for more than 50 years. There have been sparkling July 4 celebrations there since the beginning of the town. Salisbury Park has also been the site of tent meetings, softball games, horseshoe pitching, concerts, and political speeches.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church held tent meetings in the park before purchasing property across the street (to the east) for their church. The congregation disbanded in 1965, and the building was then used as the Sand Lake Library. That building was eventually moved across the street to the park, and is now the Sand Lake Museum.
The museum is home to a variety of mementoes from the early days of Sand Lake, including vintage copies of the Sand Lake Herald, railroad relics, and oodles of old photos and books chock full of the history of Sand Lake. For those interested in learning more, the museum will be open each day during the Sand Lake fair, from noon to 4 p.m.
As you stroll through Salisbury Park next week, revel in the festivities, laugh with friends, and become part of history. Experience a tradition that has been carried on for 141 years.