Whole Number 47
(Editor's note: In the September, 1959, issue of The Sparks Quarterly, we published two letters written in 1867 by William H. Sparks from Missouri to his brother back in Indiana. A few months after the second letter was written, William H. Sparks and his wife, Mary Jane, had their fourth child, whom they named Ida Elizabeth. She grew to womanhood, married Frederick William Venter, and lived to be ninety-six years of age. Not long before her death on March 16, 1964, Mrs. Venter wrote a sketch of her life. Her daughter, Mrs. Jewell Venter Frieze, has kindly consented to our publishing it here. Mrs. Frieze also loaned us her parents' wedding picture to use on the cover. Speaking of her mother in a recent letter, Mrs. Frieze wrote: Mother remarked a year or so ago that she had lived during the walking stage to the space stage. She adjusted nicely to the many changes and always took the attitude that things happen for the best.)
I was born December 18, 1867, the 4th child of a family of fourteen. My parents, William Henderson Sparks and Mary Jane Sale Sparks, in company with my grandparents, Hiram and Margaret Mitchell Sale, came to Missouri in the fall of 1866 - - one year after the close of the Civil War. They settled on a farm in the edge of a wood about three miles north of Osceola, in St. Clair County, near Caliniper Creek.
The living quarters consisted of two large log rooms and a lean-to kitchen. Each room had a big fireplace. My parents occupied one of these rooms, in which I was born. When I was about four years old, my father bought a small farm on the prairie three miles away to which he moved his family, now numbering six. I attended my first year of school at High Hill, one-half mile away. I well remember my first day in school. My teacher, Mrs. Cynthia White, called the beginners to her desk to teach them the A B C's in Webster's blue back speller. I refused to go, and lay down on the slab bench and cried. She came and petted me, showed me her little pearl handled knife. We became good friends and I learned the alphabet quite rapidly. I went to school at High Hill for six years, and have fond recollections of my school days there - - playing games at recess and noon hours and gathering big bouquets of Johnny-jump-ups, of which the school grounds were thickly carpeted. During these eight years, the family had grown to nine. Mother and Daddy had a hard time to keep the wolf from our door. Daddy collapsed while fighting a prairie fire and was never a well man again. He had a shoe cobbler's set of tools and made us shoes out of the tops of old boots given to him. (I was ten before I had a pair of store shoes.) Mother spun the wool into rolls of yarn and knit stockings until midnight many a time. I learned to knit, too. She wove blankets and linsey for our dresses. I sometimes wound shuttles for the loom and would stand at one end to catch the shuttle when mother was weaving. She later bought brown domestic and colored it with sumac berries and walnut hulls for school dresses. The seam down the back was bias. I complained that it sagged. Daddy said, "You ought to be glad for something to hide your nakedness."
As there was only one boy to six girls, I helped in the field a lot, planting and gathering corn, shocking wheat and hay, planting and digging potatoes, harrowing, etc. One happy occasion was in the fall after a hard frost when Daddy would hitch up to the wagon and we would go about five miles to Horshoe Bend on the Osage River where groves of hickory trees grew. We would gather a wagon bed almost full of nuts. They were large nuts, and we enjoyed eating them along with apples around the fireplace on cold winter nights. When the meal barrel got empty, Daddy would pick out the nicest white ears of corn and pile them on a blanket in the middle of the floor around which we all gathered and shelled corn for the grist mill. A biscuit for breakfast was a rare treat. Some of us slept in the attic which we reached by climbing a ladder. Sometimes when it snowed, it sifted through the roof on our beds. We were thrilled at Christmas time to get an orange or a stick of red striped candy.
When I was six or seven, I would go down to stay several weeks with Granny Sale and Uncle Bub during the summer. She would give me lumps of brown sugar as candy, which was scarce in those days. I can yet recall the odor of her wooden cupboard. Grandpa died when I was a year old. There was a Negro family near her house, and she often had Aunt Hannah to work for her. She baked the best pound cakes I ever ate. She would take Granny's laundry home with her and bring it back. I would watch for her coming up through the woods with a bundle of clothes on her head. She would take me on her lap and call me "Honey." I don't know what became of her. My Granny was the tiniest, sweetest old lady. She died when I was fourteen, at the age of seventy-seven, and was buried in the Landaker Cemetery. One of my happiest remembrances was at Christmas time when Daddy would put the wagon box on the big horse sleigh, fill it with clean straw, over which Mother spread a comforter, load us all in, and then "over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother's house we'd go!"
When I was twelve, Father sold our little home and rented a farm for two years. I would baby-sit and help with household chores at fifty cents a week for neighbors and go to school. After two years, Father bought another farm where we lived until I was around twenty. I joined the New Light Christian Church and was baptized in the Osage River on October 16, 1886, with fourteen other young people. Some of my happiest recollections are associated with this period of my girlhood. We had spelling matches, Sunday night singings, apple and peach cuttings, and play parties.
We would peel and cut fruit until the baskets were empty, then clear the floor for Old Dan Tucker, Skip-to-my-Lou, Old Jim Lane, etc., games of forfeit, button and snap. Happy, carefree days of yore!
When I was twenty, Father sold our farm, had a sale of all our possessions and moved to Bay Center in Washington Territory - - it became a state while we were there. Brother Harrison was a school teacher and had a school out there. Sister Allie (Alice) was married, so that left eleven of us children to go with our parents to that frontier country which was so different from "Old Missou", but the change was an inspiration to me. Oh! what a task it was for Mother to prepare for the move. I got work at five dollars a week soon after we landed, so did Rosa, Ella, Ettie, and Laura, earning enough to pay our fare. I worked for my room and board while I attended high school at Oysterville. I took the teacher's examination and got a certificate, taught two terms with only five in the district. I also taught twelve Indian children at Bay Center. I formed some very dear friendships during our stay there, and two proposals of marriage, but refused (they were fine boys); I loved the West, such a lovely climate, energetic peoplet Bay Center was an oyster shipping center. Father couldn't adjust himself to the western country with no kind of conveyance but by water, and the climate, so in a year and a half we came back to Missouri. He insisted on my coming back. The trip on the Columbia River was a delightful one. It called to mind a passage from Bryant's Thanatopsis: "Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound save its own dashing."
When we returned to Missouri, I immediately entered Weaubleau Christian College for one year, passed the teachers' examination, and rated a first grade certificate. I taught one term at the Denny School House, then returned for a spring term at Weaubleau. I heard of a school in the Cole District, so one hot day in July, Brother Charlie and I went on horseback to see about it, making the trip of twenty miles in one day. I rode on a side saddle the entire journey. They hired me. Here is where I first saw my future husband. As I stood in the school house door ringing the bell, a gay young guy came dashing up in a buggy and deposited two fine looking school girls whom he had overtaken on his road home from Cobb. I did not meet him that winter as he left for college at Weaubleau. I taught at Cole School the next winter and boarded with Mrs. Venter (F. W.'s mother). Then our romance began. One evening in October we were standing under a lilac bush tree when, on gazing up, I spied a lilac bloom. He broke it off and handed it to me - - ever since, the lilac has been my favorite flower. Our courtship lasted a year and a half. I lived at Lowery City at that time, and he came to see me often. Once he rode a mule. A little boy seeing him pass said, "He sat up so straight that he looked like he had a board at his back." I taught two more terms of school, then on March 14, 1895, we were married.
Fred began building our little yellow house near the Venter Bluff the winter before we were married. The neighbors asked what he was building and he said a hen house. Our wedding day was a cold, bleak day. Conrad and J. T. (Tayo) came up with Fred to attend the wedding as the only guests. Brother Shackleford read the ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Several of the young came that night and brought musical instruments. The next day was Friday, the 15th, and it was a bright, sunny day as we drove in a buggy to my future home. I taught that spring at Cole School and took the path over the bluff that was strewn with flowers. I taught at Hard Scrabble (Green Valley) the next winter and drove old Baldy for two miles hitched to a two-wheel cart and most froze on the cold days. The next winter, I taught at Black Jack about two miles south. Sac River was between our place and the school house. I walked to the river, got in a small boat, rowed across, tied up the boat and walked one-half mile to the school house. I enjoyed that school more than any other. But it was very hard on me to teach, keep up my house work, do my laundry, etc. The doctor advised me to quit teaching and I did.
After we were married five years, our first baby was born March 28, 1900. We named her Jewell Fern and we thought her a jewell indeed. When I helped her daddy at the sorghum mill, I would put her in the big clothes basket under a shade tree. She would sleep or sit for hours at a time, guarded by our dog, Major. Poor kid! On March 14, 1902, our springtime fairy made her debut. She was so like a little spring bloom that we named her Vernal Fay (which meant "Springtime Fairy"). Her daddy had counted on a boy. When Jewell was four years old and Vernal two, their Grandmother Venter died at the age of sixty-nine. Their Grandpa Venter had died in 1888. They are both buried up on the hill, back of our old home. Two weeks after their Grandmother Venter died, their Grandfather Sparks died, so they remember only their Grandmother Sparks, who passed away three years later.
Often we would stroll along the Venter Bluff on Sunday afternoons. We would go also up on the hill to gather flowers where an old Indian path could be seen. There was a spring called the Prairie Spring at the foot of the bluff. A drainage ditch made by Negro slaves could be seen here, too. We had preaching once a month and Sunday School every Sunday at River View where to took them. I was a charter member of the Union Church which was quite active. The girls attended River View School until they were fifteen and thirteen. During the year of 1911-12, Daddy and John Stauffer made a large wooden clock with a dial 10 feet across. They placed it in the big red barn and painted the face on the gable end of the barn. Two weights weighed 75 pounds and the gong could he heard to ring a mile away. It burned when the barn burned in 1917.
In 1915, having lived twenty years in the little yellow house "under the bluff," we sold off our stock, implements, household goods, and went to Roswell, New Mexico, where we lived for nearly two years. We drove down there in a Maxwell car, camping out at night. Roswell was a beautiful city, situated in the heart of a vast desert. It had good schools and churches. The girls both entered high school. Daddy ran his Maxwell car as a taxi. The night before we got to Roswell, there came the worst hail and wind storm I ever experienced. The wind raised the back of the tent, left one pole standing. The hail piled in on the hay bed we had made. We cleared enough dry hay for the girls a bed. Dad and I sat up, fearful of another cloud burst. We drove into Roswell the next morning and rented an apartment at 305 North Kentucky. There were some Bottomless Lakes three or four miles east where we would go for picnics. Our little black dog, Nero, was poisoned and was buried out in the flowercovered desert.
We had rented our farm to Freddy Venter, and they kept writing for us to come back and look after it. So on a bright morning in June, 1917, we set out in our new Dodge for Missouri. The trail led through a vast desert with no habitation in sight. The desert was carpeted with flowers. Cactus of all hues met our eyes. Reminds me of Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air." We arrived home in June. We rented an apartment in El Dorado Springs and started the girls to school where they graduated, went on to Columbia to the University and graduated from there four years later. I think their girlhood days were very happy. Meanwhile, Daddy built and ran a garage. The girls both taught school and Jewell did office work, too. They were baptized and united with the El Dorado Christian Church in 1917.
The first break in our family circle was made in 1930, when Kenneth McCall, a fine young fellow, asked for the hand of our daughter, Vernal, whom he met while both were teaching in Portales, New Mexico. They were married in August, 1930. Our lives were made fuller when our three darling grandchildren were born. Some eight years later, Jewell met her future husband in the refined and respected person of Zola Frieze, whom she was fortunate to marry in 1938. Though their home has been childless, she has spent much of her time caring for others. Two better sons-inlaw were never known.
In July, 1945, after we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, Daddy decided he could no longer carry on his beloved business, which he had run for over thirty years. He sold out the garage, equipment, and rented the building to Mr. Price. The next February, he became bedfast. We took him to Springfield to St. John's Hospital where he died on March 6, 1946. This was the darkest day of my life. Only those who have lost a beloved companion can ever know how empty life can be. That was my "Gethsemane." But one has to go on, and I was blessed with two dear, devoted daughters and grand, understanding sons-in- law, who have cared for me ever since and have made life fuller and happier than most women enjoy who have been bereft of the one who shared their joys and sorrows of their declining years. Our sunset days together are but pleasant memories. "God gave us memories that we might have roses in December." It is true, some of the roses of memory have sharp thorns, but time and age, to some extent, blunt their sharpness.
(Ida E. Venter passed away on March 16, 1964, at the age of ninety-six years. She is buried in the El Dorado Springs City Cemetery beside Fred W. Venter, her husband, in the north-western portion of the old section. Many oak trees are nearby.)