April 29, 2021

Pages 473-481
Whole Number 30


(Editor's Note: All too few members of the Sparks family have written autobiographies. One exception to this unfortunate family tendency was William Tennis Sparks who, during his last years, spent many weeks recording his memories of a long and profitable life.  His chief motivation was to preserve for his descendants a record of a lifetime's experiences during a period in American history which witnessed tremendous changes in nearly every aspect of living. The manuscript of Mr. Sparks's autobiography is now owned by his daughter, Mrs. Helen Sparks Robbins, 1916 Blue Ridge Road, Charlottesville, Virginia. Mrs. Robbins has kindly provided the Association with a microfilm of her father's life story. Space in the Quarterly will not permit our publishing the entire manuscript, but from time to time we do plan to share with other members of the Association those portions, relating particularly to the early periods of Mr. Sparks's life, which will prove most interesting. Some information on the ancestry of William Tennis Sparks appeared in Ben Sparks's 'Family Memories' in the December, 1956, issue of the Quarterly, Whole No. 16, pp. 172-175).

William Tennis Sparks was twice married. His first wife was Mary Caroline Beatty of Tipton County, Indiana. by this marriage he had two children, Edith Ann Sparks and Martha Adelia Sparks. Some years after the death of his first wife he married Lida Swinehart of Adelphi, Ohio. To this marriage there were also born two children: a son Verne Sparks, and a daughter, Sarah Helen Sparks (now Mrs. Robbins). As an introduction to the excerpts from the autobiograpby, Mrs. Robbins has kindly consented to our publishing a tribute to her father which she wrote in 1949, in the hundredth year of his birth.)

A tribute Helen S. Robbins

My father, William Tennis Sparks, was borne hundred years ago in the little town of Laurel, Indiana. At the age of three he was taken by his parents to nearby County to live on a farm. There, together with his brothers and sisters, he was reared to manhood in the manner, and according to the customs, of the place and time. From his own account, what a happy childhood must have been his and what a liberal education of a kind.

My father's formal education, however, was very meager. The three R' a were the backbone of the curriculum of the schools (if one may use such a technical and formal word in referring to the fare offered in the country schools in his day). There was very little meat, and no 'trimmin's.' But of these three R's my father was master. For over thirty years he taught them in the public schools of Indiana and Ohio (and other subjects too as they were added). In the summer time he usually farmed (as was the common practice among the country school teachers) or turned his hand to any of the thousand and one jobs which needed to be done in the home, on the farm, or in the nearby village. He was very skillful too, and had been taught as a lad to mend and make--not hire and buy. In later years, after the turn of the century, when the demand for formally trained teachers began to be heard on all sides, it was fortunate for him that he had these manual skills. He could never understand going to the store to buy gadgets, though after the purchase of one, he always viewed it with the wonder and curiosity of a child. His own remark was, 'Oh! don't buy that. That would be costly. I will make it.'

In every spare moment, and in stolen time too, my father read. All printed words to him were 'holy writ.' His small library, as I recall it, was made up mostly of large books, bound in leather. They look now like old law books, and bear such titles as 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,' 'The Poetical Works of Milton,' 'byron's Complete Works,' 'Moore's Complete Works' (all 'Illustrated with Engravings from Drawings by Eminent Artists"); Josephus' 'Complete Works,' Kit Carson's 'Life and Adventures,' and 'The Polar and Tropical Worlds.' There were also some smaller volumes of American and English poetry, the Bible, Emerson's Essays, the McGuffey Readers, some history books and pamphlets, mostly American; a few textbooks on pedagogy, a few textbooks of the sciences, Darwin's 'Origin of Species,' and the Encyclopedia Britannica. All these books were sacred to father. As one friend put it, 'Books are gold in this house.' And that this was, in a way, literally as well as figuratively true is indicated by the fact that on the fly-leaf of each book appears, in the penmanship of the day, in which my father excelled (he was especially good in flourishes and feathers): William T. Sparks, His Book, the date of purchase, and sometimes the place, and, nearly always, the price, in large and especially flourishing figures.

As the years passed by, father was often referred to by friends and acquaintances as the 'walking encyclopedia,' and many saw in him something of the philosopher. To his own family circle, the philosopher he undoubtedly was. Often, when the conversation at the table was of the froth and the temporal, he would look dreamily into space with his wondering and wonderful dark brown eyes (one admirer said they were like velvet). Then in his turn, he would speak of some impersonal subject which was absorbing his mental processes at the time and which was often utterly irrevelant to the last spoken word. But everyone, and the young people especially, would listen with profound respect, not as a matter of duty to the aged, but because there was that in his appearance and manner of talking which compelled attention and aroused interest. Ho was a born teacher.

Father was not, however, always lost in philosophic mazes. On the contrary, he was often the life and the soul of the dinner party. If there were guests and father was present, I know they would be well entertained. Besides a native wit and interest in the great panorama of life about him, he had a fund of stories to tell of his early life in Indiana, and he told them well, to everyone's great amusement and delight. I once read that Thomas Riley Marshall, vice-president in Wilson's administration, had a similar method and success in entertaining Washington society.

Besides politics and reading, the writing of the story of his life was my father's major interest after he had passed his eightieth year. Even at this advanced age he was a man of great physical strength and steady nerves, and I can see him sitting at a desk or table, in the house or in the yard, straight and erect and dignified. His were not trembling hands as they held the pen and put on paper the memories of those far-off, happy, happy days. His skin was very smooth, and though he was bald, the fringe of hair remaining was very, very black save for a few gray wisps at the temples.

He always kept on hand a bottle of Higgins' Black Ink (Eternal, or Everlasting, I believe it was called) which he would remind me to get for him at the store. With this he would print, painstakingly, and for hours on end; transferring in this ancient and monkish way the material on the accumulated pile of written sheets. This printing was done in stiff-backed cloth composition books which he had covered with heavy Manila paper, the better to preserve them.

Naturally, the whole of this story as he has left it to us is of vast interest and importance to his children and grandchildren. I believe parts of it, at least, will interest others. The last half of the nineteenth century, in which the first half of my father's life was lived, seems now very remote to thousands, perhaps millions, in our land. But there are many of us now living who were reared according to the standards and precepts of the late Victorians and may be said to have our roots in that age so idealistic and naive, despite its 'roaring' and its 'gaiety.' In this time of turmoil, confusion, and doubt, we often turn with longing to stories of the days when life was simple, when people seemed to be so sure, and when the road seemed to lie so straight ahead.

As I have stated, my father was borne hundred years ago, in the village of Laurel, in the heart of the Hoosier State. This village lies southeast of the capital, Indianapolis, and not far from Rushville.

In the year 1849, Indianapolis was a city of 7,686 inhabitants. Hon. Joseph A. Wright was the governor of the state, having been elected in December of that year to succeed Gov. James Whitcomb. Zachary Taylor--"Old Rough and Ready"--was the president of the United States, and the Republican Party had not yet been born. Indianapolis is now the second largest capital city in the United States and the home of the dizzy Memorial Day auto races. But in that city in 1849, as elsewhere in the country, there were no automobiles, no electric lights, no movies, no telephones, no radios, no television, no bathrooms. Nevertheless, though all these material things were lacking, the stage was set for the entry of James Whitoomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, and George Ade, among others--founders and makers of that literary school which was to be called the 'literary school of great mellowness.'

This mellowness was also to be found in the popular music of that day. On many parlor organs and on occasional square pianos, with their carved garlands of roses, or on banjos and fiddles, the new and well loved songs of Stephen Foster were played. And to these accompaniments in the twilight of a summer evening one could hear the untrained, but rich and happy voices singing 'Oh! Susanna,' 'My Old Kentucky Home,' 'Gentle Annie,' 'Beautiful Dreamer,' or the lovely, haunting 'Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.'

The dangers of the great primeval forests had been overcome and the fear of them had passed from men's minds. The year 1846, which Bernard DeVote has named 'the Year of Decision,' was past. The great, beautiful, rich new country stretched away to the vast Pacific Ocean and the common man, like 'stout Cortez,' looked about him with a 'wild surmise.' The Star of Hope was high in the heaven of his world. He was free from tyranny of any kind. He could move as be pleased, speak as he pleased. And with care and industry he could be one of the kings of this new country--a king on his quarter-section of land--along with thousands of other kings like him, none above, and none below. Could this have been his golden age in all the history of the world? At least it was a fine time in which to be born and in which to be alive, and. my father, along with many others, thought so. Despite the gathering storm clouds of the great Civil War, his story of his childhood days tells of simple happiness and hope, which did not diminish through the years, until the coming of the world catastrophe in 1914.


Birth and Ancestry

Birth, Life, and Death are certain. Every individual that enters this world comes into it by the same natural process. Each and every one goes out of it sooner or later, and 'there is no bourne from which the traveler ever returns.' Death is inexorable, for 'it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the Judgment.'

Birth and death are both great mysteries. But it appears to me that Life is the most mysterious of all. It especially grips the mind, engages the thought, and commands the earnest attention of all men. The king upon his exalted throne; the common peasant in his humble mountain home; the poor fisherman in his storm-beaten hut by the sea; are all perpetually absorbed in this momentous subject. It has been said that 'all things have a beginning.' There was a time when all things created, that move, creep or crawl, live and have their being did not exist.

Thus like unto the countless millions that came into existence before my time I had a begining also. The day and date of my nativity, I obtained from my mother. Our birthdates are necessarily imparted to us by our parents, or some authentic person who knows. I do not doubt in the least the accuracy of the date of my advent into the world, which was December 10, 1849. My mother imparted this truth to me at an early time of my life, therefore I believe the date given is absolutely correct.

I first saw the light of day in Laurel, Franklin County, Indiana. The town derived its name from a town of the same name situated in the State of Maryland about midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The county is named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. The state was so called because of so many Indian tribes that once inhabited that region.

Laurel is located about 18 miles west of the Ohio State line, and 57 miles N. by W. of Cincinnati, and about the same distance S.E. of Indianapolis, the state capital....

The little town has a population of probably six or seven hundred, which has remained practically the same for nearly 80 years. It is beautifully located in the White Water Valley, just west of the river, merging into the Seins Creek bottoms one half mile to the southwest. That portion of the town immediately west is known as Somerset, a sort of suburb. When passing through Somerset when a lad the Iron Foundry of James O'Hare always attracted my attention. The White Water Canal boats tied up to its banks shared with the foundry my boyish interest.

For eight decades the census enumerators have listed me as a unit in the population of this Great Republic. A large number of my contemporaries have passed into the great beyond. After the lapse of four score and three years, I remain to look out upon life with the accumulated interest of the passing years.

In the year when I was born, Zachary Taylor,--'Old Rough and Ready,'--was President of the United States, but died 7 months later, July 9, 1850. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhune, Lewis Casa, and many other public men equally distinguished were then living: Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, Lowell, Hawthorne, Audubon, and a host of other famous authors were making the world better for having lived in it. Many happy days have I enjoyed through the years because of their writings and what, by their efforts, they have accomplished for mankind. Anyone who may chance to read this sketch in after years, no doubt will be curious to learn something of my ancestors and immediate relatives. I have often regretted that I neglected in my younger days while yet there was an opportunity to ascertain from Father, Grandfather, and others of my forebears, more information concerning the history of our family.

The facts I possess relating to the Sparks, Purvis, and Davidson Families will be given in the following pages.

The Purvis Family

William Purvis, my great-grandfather, was born in Virginia in 1770. He came to Kentucky not long after Daniel Boone made the first settlement in that state. I remember him quite well. The last time I saw him was at our house in 1866. He was then 96 and totally blind. He died soon after in Brookville, Ind. I was delighted, when a boy, to hear him tell of the old pioneer days. How he shot panthers, bears, deer, and wild turkeys with his old flint-lock rifle. I have seen and handled that same old gun. I have long desired to possess it as a relic of early days. The last I heard of it, Francis Purvis, a grandson, had it, who then resided near Galveston, Ind., five miles from Kokomo.

My great-grandfather, Wm. Purvis, came from Kentucky to Indiana in an early day, before it became a state, and settled near where Laurel now is. At that time there were only three houses in Southeastern Indiana. His log cabin, one where Connersville now stands, and another to the west on Big Blue River. He told of crossing the Ohio River at Fort Washington, now Cincinnati.

It has been claimed that the blood of the American Indian coursed through his veins. At least that is a tradition held by many of his descendants. If this tradition has any foundation, I possess no evidence at present to verify it. However, he had many of the characteristics of the Indian. lie was as straight in form as any dusky warrior, and possessed the same dark piercing eye. Moreover his habits in the wilderness were similar to those of the Red Man.....

He was light of body, and small of stature. Perhaps he was less than 5 feet 5 inches in height. His wife's maiden name was Jones, who died before my time. They had a family of three sons and two daughters, as I now recall. Their names were as follows: George, Frank, Rebecca, Nancy, and Jesse. [Data which Mr. Sparks gave on these Pervis children have been omitted from this excerpt from his autobiography..]

Rebecca Purvis (my grandmother) was born in Burbon County, Kentucky, probably in 1807. She resembled her father. She had the same kind of dark, penetrating eyes. As a woman she was of normal size. Her brothers and sisters were all small in stature, somewhat below the average. She was a voluable talker with a wonderful mellow and attractive voice. When she visited us I was delighted to hear her talk. She usually monopolized the conversation, because everyone was willing to listen to her splendid gift of expression. She had a very retentive memory and seldom forgot the minutest detail.

The Sparkses Multipy

I have kown many of the Sparks family of three or four generations. However, I have not been in touch with many of the name for several years. My great-grandfather Sparks was yet living when I was a lad of six.

I distinctly remember my grandfather coming up to our house from his home near Laurel on his way to visit his father out near Indianapolis on Eagle Creek, where greatgrandfather resided at this time. Grandfather Hugh Sparks was only 50 years of age then, 1856.

Great-grandfather was a native of England. I knew very little of his history; I do not even know his Christian name or when he died. I should have questioned grandfather more concerning him. [Editor's Note: Recent research proves that Mr. Sparks's great-grandfather was named 28 David Sparks; from census records it would appear that he was born ca. 1788; on both the 1850 and 1860 census, David Sparks gave his birthplace as Tennessee. He died in 1861. His will was published in the ] the December, 1956, issue of the the Quarterly, pp. 175-176.

Grandfather 28.1 Hugh Sparks was born in Somerset, KY, July 11, 1806, and was reared in Madison County, Ohio, near London. I always believed he was a native of Ohio until I saw him for the last time when he was 82. I then asked him if he was not a native of Ohio. He replied that he was not, but was born in Kentucky, giving me the facts of his birth as stated above.

He [Hugh Sparks] was above the average height, probably 5 feet 11 inches; his form was erect, and he had a very quick step. His eyes were a clear English blue, something of the Nordic type. His hair was rather nondescript. It could be described as a sort of mouse or dust color. He was very industrious, cheerful and kind hearted.

He married Rebecca Purvis in 1825. These grandparents had 10 children, 5 sons and 5 daughters. I saw them all and knew them intimately except two, Albert and George, who both died before my time.

28.1.1 James Sparks, (the firstborn) first saw the light in Connersville, Fayette County, md., June 27, 1826, and died in Waldron, Ind., January 1914, in his 88th year. He was 6 feet tall, and weighed about 185 pounds. His hair in his younger days was nearly black and quite handsome, becoming almost white late in life. Being erect in form, he was strong in body and quite capable of performing much hard work on the farm for many years. He had keen black eyes, a retentive memory greatly resembling his mother. He married Mehetable Davidson, January 1846. Naturally, I will have much to say of both Father and Mother in the chapter telling of my youthful days.

28.1.2 William Sparks (Father's brother) was born in Franklin Co., Ind., 1828 and died in Rushville, Ind., 1909 in his 81st year. He was near 6 feet in height, erect in form, with black hair and keen black eyes like his mother. He was a deciple of St. Crispen. He married Sarah Knots by whom he had a son John, who died in Rushville some years ago, leaving two or three sons, whom I have never seen. [See the Quarterly of December, 1956, Whole No. 16, pp. 172-175, for material on this family.] 'Uncle Bill' as we usually called him, and Aunt Sarah, had an adopted daughter named Hattie, who married FNU Downey. Their daughter married Mr. Bert Matney of New Salem, Ind.....

28.1.3 Martha Sparks (Father's oldest sister). This aunt resembled her brother William very much, I thought. She married a rather handsome blue-eyed, fair-skinned German by the name of Daniel Urtle. They had a little daughter Elizabeth. Not long after Aunt Martha passed away, young in years, I remember being at their house in Laurel. Little Cousin Lizzie was taken to Winona, MN, by Mrs. Snider to live with her. I have completely lost all trace of her, not knowing if she is still living or not. No doubt she has long since followed her dear mother to the Spirit Land.

After the Civil War broke out, Uncle Daniel entered the Union Army as a volunteer in the 21st Illinois Regiment, the same commanded by Col. U. S. Grant, who subsequently became the most noted general of the War. Uncle Dan took an active part in the great battle of Stone River or Murfresboro. He was severely wounded in this sanguinary battle. His thigh bone was badly shattered by a canister shot. I saw him stretched upon an army cot at Grandfather's in the summer of 1864 when he us convalesing. I had a long conversation with him concerning that terrific battle. Sometimes he would sit on the side of his cot and pick pieces of splintered bone from his wound in his thigh with the point of his knife. It was not long before he was able to be up, then joined the Invalid Corps stationed at Madison, Wisconsin. I never heard of him afterward. I often recall, even to this day, the handsome German soldier who shed his blood on a great American Battlefield.

28.1.4 Elizabeth Sparks (2nd sister of Father) married John Williams of Franklin County, who was a bridge carpenter. I remember their two sons, Clinton and Forest. I think there was another boy, but I do not recall for sure. Aunt Lizzie died comparatively young and Uncle married again. I was at their home in 1869 and remained one night. Since then I have no knowledge of them. The last I heard of the boys, they resided in Lafayette, Indiana.

Malinda Sparks (Father's 3rd sister) was a beautiful young woman as I now recall her. When she was near 18, she married Dennis Curran, an Irishman said to be the cousin of the noted John Philpot Curran, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and one of the most brilliant wits and orators of his day. They had one daughter, Malinda, born I believe in the year 1852. Her mother, like her two older sisters, died very young. In fact she had not reached her 20th birthday when she was taken away from her husband and infant daughter.

After her mother's death, little Malinda was taken by her grandparents to live with them. She must have been quite young then, for I remember her using a bottle to take her food when I visited Grandfather's. She had named her bottle 'Fox.' I wonder if she still remembers 'Fox.'

In the course of time, Uncle Dennis married a Catholic lady of Harrison, Ohio, where they resided. Soon after, they took little Malinda to live with them. They sent her to a Catholic School in Harrison, where she became fairly well educated. After she became almost a young lady, it seems she and her step-mother did not get along agreeably so she left the parental roof and returned to dwell with her grandparents, where she continued to reside until they passed away. After her grandparents were gone, she went to live with our Aunt 'Sally' Shafer who was now a widow, and had purchased a modest home in Shelby County, Ind. Aunt Sally having died, Malinda got married, though somewhat advanced in life. She was given the small home by her aunt. Her husband lived but a few years. I knew nothing of him, not even his name.

Malinda is now--of the date January 1, 1933, an inmate of the Old Ladies Home, Waldron, Ind. She is 80 years of age. I had the pleasure of calling on her in August, 1931, and found she had a pleasant home in which to pass her declining days. I will mention her again in the proper connection.

Lury Sparks (Father's 4th sister) was born ca. 1840 and married Passwell Long in Franklin County. As she stayed at our house a considerable part of her girlhood days, I will have occasion to mention her frequently further on. They had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was very delicate in health and did not live many years. The daughter married Eli Quaintance, a lightning rod salesman of Lafayette, Ind., where they resided. I saw Mr. Quaintance a time or two in Kokomo, Ind.

Lury Sparks died in her father's house in the late summer of 1864. Mother and I were there at the time, and attended her funeral. She was buried at Laurel in the beautiful cemetery on the hill. I do not know what became of her husband, who was a brother of Uncle Emanuel Long who married Mother's sister.

Sarah Sparks (Father' s youngest sister) was born in Franklin County, md., probably in 1844-5. She married Ira Shafer about the beginning of the Civil War. They never had any children. Uncle Ira joined the Union Army as a volunteer in the 68th Regt., Ind. Vol. Infantry. Aunt 'Sally,' as we always called her, made her home with her parents while Uncle Ira was away fighting for his country. His regiment us captured near Mumfordsville, KY. They were paroled and afterwards exchanged.

One Saturday, Wesley and I visited Grandfather's. To entertain us, Aunt Sally procured a small revolver, a gift from Uncle Ira. We set up a target in the yard, and had much fun and enjoyment in firing at it by turns. It was great sport for us boys. Firearms had a great attraction for me. Of course, in war times almost every boy was crazy to handle and shoot a gun of some description. I remember Aunt Sally's visit in March, 1863. She brought a copy of The Brookville American with her, in which I read an account of the marriage of Edward Prince of Wales in the City of London, on March 10, 1863. On the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, he became King of England as Edward VII. He is the father of the present King of England, George V.

Aunt Sally's last days were spent with Cousin Malinda in Shelby County, Indiana, which fact has already been stated.

Samuel Taylor Jenks Sparks (Father' a youngest brother) was born around the beginning of 1849, near Laurel, Ind. He died at the home of his niece, Malinda Curran, at the comparative early age of 58. He never married. Being near the age of Wesley and me, we made visits quite frequently before reaching manhood, and enjoyed many sports together, such as hunting, fishing, swiming, etc. We indulged in many kinds of games and boyish ventures in our youthful days.

All of Grandfather's immediate family long since have 'crossed the Bar.' There are only a few, and a very few, who knew any of them. To this small number, they remain now only a lingering memory, objects almost of a forgotten past.