Local Historian Honored by Michigan Historical Society

By Pat Wilson O’Leary

Donald H. Sanborn, a volunteer hero in Schoolcraft, received the 2019 Award for Distinguished Volunteer Service at the Michigan History Conference on September 27 in Ludington.

This recognition is well-deserved for this WWII veteran, an avid reader of history, historian, researcher, author, volunteer extraordinaire, an all-around good, humble man, and an outstanding representative of the Greatest Generation, according to the nomination submitted to the State History Awards Committee by a group of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg historians.

Sanborn began his habit of volunteering when he was 17 years old and enlisted in the Navy. He spent his two years at the end of WWII at Headquarters, 8th Naval District in New Orleans. At 92, Sanborn still volunteers at the Schoolcraft Historical Society (44 years to date), Kalamazoo Air Zoo (over 20 years), Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame Selection Committee (10 years) and the Science Inspiration Hall of Fame Selection Committee (4 years). That adds up to at least 78 combined years of volunteer service to promote Michigan and United States history. While Sanborn would say, “Don’t make a fuss,” the 10 people who worked on this nomination think Sanborn is an outstanding candidate for the distinguished volunteer award.

Sanborn’s lifetime of philanthropy and volunteerism began locally with the establishment of the Schoolcraft Historical Society in 1975. Sanborn and his wife, Sheila, were friends of Mary Jane Swartz and her daughters, Harriett Swartz and Nancy Rafferty. When Mary Jane saw a For Sale sign on the Dr. Nathan M. Thomas and Pamela Brown house in Schoolcraft, she enlisted the help of her daughters, as well as the Sanborns, to procure the building. Thomas and Brown, husband and wife, were Quaker abolitionists who had used the house as a station on the underground railway, sheltering as many as 1,500 escaped slaves over the years. Don and Sheila felt the significant role of the home, not only locally, but nationally, merited their whole-hearted support. The Schoolcraft Historical Society was formed to procure a loan to purchase the home and start a fund for its restoration.

The mandate of the organization was clear: to turn the poorly kept rental into a historical site called the Underground Railroad House.

The Sanborns, who had moved to Schoolcraft in 1970, became active members of the Society. Don served as vice-president for four years while Sheila was president, and then assumed the presidency for the next 21 years after Sheila’s retirement. Sanborn has also served as curator-archivist, tour guide and general handyman. The two remained dedicated to the organization even after they moved from Schoolcraft to Portage in 1994.

Sanborn developed and honed his leadership and communication skills as Director of Marketing Information, Systems and Services at the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo. Members of the Schoolcraft Historical Society said that it was those skills of organization, leadership and task completion that helped grow the Society. Sanborn and other SHS members wrote and won a state grant for historical preservation which is still being used for restoration and maintenance of the Underground Railroad House.

Sanborn organized the cleanup and refurbishment of the house, getting volunteer workers to empty and clean the house, expel rodents, tear down walls, floors, and remove appliances. Sanborn participated in all phases of the restoration and helped oversee the skilled tradespeople who were hired to return the floor plan to the original layout, replace the roof, walls, windows, and floors; add plumbing, scrape and paint inside and out, as well as install a security system. Sanborn also orchestrated the return of original furnishings to the house: an apothecary chest, major family portraits, medical books, a mortar and pestle, as well as bedroom and kitchen furniture. Sanborn also assisted in placing the Dr. Nathan Thomas Home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Completion of the restoration project did not stop Sanborn from nurturing this treasured site. It is known that Sanborn still drives past the Underground Railroad House every day and has for years. He has quickly dealt with trees downed in storms, rodent damage, unlocked doors, leaky plumbing and numerous other emergencies. Many SHS members joked that Sanborn should be “president for life”. However, he turned over his president’s hat in 2017 to David LaLiberte after serving 25 years as president or vice-president.

Every month the SHS uses the house for its meetings, involving 5 to 25 participants. Sanborn, an accomplished historian and writer, has presented programs on a wide range of historical topics to the SHS, local libraries, and university. He is still known to pinch hit at short notice when a speaker cannot be found or cancels. Sanborn participates in the approximately two dozen tours that are given each year by volunteers at the Underground Railroad House.

Tour groups number in size from two to 50 and visitors include tourists, local citizens, school groups, members from other historical societies, as well as bus tours from the Chicago and Detroit areas. Thanks to Sanborn and other dedicated Schoolcraft Historical Society members, many visitors visiting for the first time discover the history of the Underground Railroad, how families lived in mid-19th century Michigan, and about the practice of the first medical doctor in Kalamazoo County. Sanborn will say that all of this Michigan history was saved because of the efforts of many people, which is true. But Sanborn’s good will and leadership were instrumental in encouraging other volunteers to complete and maintain this precious historical site.

Sanborn has been involved at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo as a volunteer docent, author of historical articles, as well as committee member for the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame and the Science Inspiration Hall of Fame. Sanborn has volunteered at the Air Zoo one day a week for over 20 years, logging almost 10,000 hours as a volunteer docent.

Sanborn is an often-requested tour guide because he prepares himself for the age and topic of each scheduled group. Sanborn loves this part of his volunteer work because he can see and hear the interest from tour members, pre-school through adult.

The Air Zoo publishes a newsletter that is distributed electronically to over 200 employees and volunteers and made available to visitors at the Air Zoo. For five years, Sanborn contributed an article most months, about events, aviators, soldiers, and sailors who influenced Michigan and United States history. Sanborn has contributed thousands of hours of research and writing to submit about 60 articles because he believes it’s important to understand the history of our state and nation.

The Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, located at the Air Zoo, was established in 1987, to recognize the Michigan men and women who have made contributions to aviation and space exploration. Sanborn has organized and standardized the nomination process. He goes through every nomination, even ones which are incomplete, and adds to the research of applications if needed. The job of the reading committee is made easier because of Sanborn’s work. Another of Sanborn’s volunteer services at the Air Zoo over the last four years, is to serve on the committee for the Science Innovation Hall of Fame. This organization works to recognize men and women who have been contributors to, and role models for, innovation in science research and education.

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