January 24, 2021

Pages 904-907
Whole Number 50

From the Autobiography of Dr. John B. Sparks

(Editor's Note: The following paragraphs are taken from a copy of a book called An M.D. the Hard Way by Dr. John B. Sparks, which was loaned to the editor by Mr. E. F. Smith of Floresville, Texas. It was published by The Neylor Company in San Antonio, Texas, in 1955. Dr. Sparks, the author, was born September 1, 1877, near Waco, Texas. His father was James Hawkins Sparks, born July 29, 1844, at Nacogdoches, Texas. His mother was Mary Ann Davis, born September 16, 1846. His parents were married on December 4, 1866.

Dr. Sparks's paternal grandfather was Stephen Franklin Sparks, who was born in Yazoo County, Mississippi, on April 7, 1819, and died at Rockport, Texas, on May 12, 1908. Stephen Franklin Sparks emigrated to Texas with his parents, Richard and Elizabeth (Cooper) Sparks, in 1834 and located in what is now San Augustine County. Stephen F. Sparks married Emily B. Whitaker on October 6, 1836. She died in McClellan County in January 1855. He married, second, Jane M. Journey in December, 1856. When he died in 1908, Stephen F. Sparks was the last hero of the famous Battle of San Jacinto, fought on April 21, 1836. Richard Sparks, father of Stephen F.Sparks, was born ca. 1793 and was a son of William Sparks, whose application for a pension for his service in the American Revolution appeared in the June, 1954, issue, Whole No. 6. William Sparks was born April 3, 1761, near Salisbury, North Carolina. He was a son of Matthew and Sarah Sparks, about whom we published a long article in the June, 1961, issue of the Quarterly, Whole No. 34.)

I saw the light for the first time September 1, 1877, in a log cabin twenty-five miles north of Waco, Texas, in Bosque County, where my parents were ranching. Our closest town was Valley Mills, nine miles from the ranch. When I was about one and a half years old I had a severe spell of sickness, and no one thought I would ever live through it - - not even the family physician, who came horseback to see me every day for one year. I guess I was too tough for them; after one year I began to recuperate. I was about four years old when the log cabin was torn down and replaced by my father with a typical ranch house.

I was one of nine children, having five sisters and three brothers.... Our closest neighbor on the ranch was five miles away and our transportation was the horse. Some people had buggies. When I was six years old my father gave me a thousand sheep to herd. On foot we would travel five to ten miles from home every day. He gave me a shepherd or collie dog that had been trained to help me manage the sheep. We had no fences those days. A few people fenced their land, but those who did not have land cut the fences down to let their stock have the free and open range. One day a wolf ran into my flock and killed three sheep before the dog and I could stop him. My responsibility was very great for a boy of six years.

We had about three or four months of school a year, and I was very glad when school opened so I could get loose from those sheep. I had to walk four miles to school and Mother would fix me a lunch, usually of the finest sausage and big biscuits. Mother rolled the biscuits out by hand.

My father talked himself into trouble at church on one Sunday morning. Father said, "I don't have a fence, but I had just as soon have my barn set on fire as to have a fence cut." That same night, his barn was set on fire and 1,000 bushels of corn were destroyed, and we came very near losing a lot of the sheep. After that fire, twelve ranch men over the county paid a visit to all who they suspected of cutting fences and starting fires and notified them that if another fence was cut or a barn or anything set on fire, they would swing by the neck until dead, All of' this had a rather bad effect on me.

My father did some farming on the ranch. He grew corn, oats, wheat and some cotton. The cotton seed was hauled off and dumped or put on the farm for fertilizer. The people thought the seed was poisonous for stock and had no value of any kind. I did not like to herd sheep and did not like farming, especially when I had to take the down row gathering corn.

I had a little pony named Joe, and while I was only six years of age, I had to ride many nights to Valley Mills to get a doctor when someone was sick, and some of us were sick very often. Going after the doctor in the middle of the night was a lonely job, but for some cause or another it always fell to my lot to go for him. Between the ranch and Valley Mills, where the doctor lived, was the river. There was no bridge, and it seemed to me that river got up a great deal. However, we had one place to cross it. It was considered fairly safe, but not too safe, evidently, because quite a few people drowned at that crossing.

One night when I was going after the doctor, the moon was shining bright as day. I met a man- -on horseback, of course- -about a mile before I got to the river. He stopped me and asked me if I was familiar with the crossing. I told him I had been, but that I hadn't crossed the river in a week or two and if it had changed any, I didn't know about it. He wondered where the crossing was. He said, "Well, the river is up, but not so much that you can't cross it without having to swim your horse. But only if you cross it just right. If you don't cross just right, there is a good deal of danger of you getting drowned there." He tried to tell me how to cross it, and finally said, "I think I had better go back with you and show you how to cross it." He did to back and show me exactly how, and I had no trouble. Unfortunately, I didn't get this gentleman's name and until this day I don't know who he was.

I found the doctor at home that night. I didn't always find him there, because he frequently was up the river or down the river on a case, and maybe you couldn't get him. But he was home that night. He saddled his old black single-footing horse and we were off. He asked me about the river before we left, and I told him it was up some. It had come up to my pony's side nearly to the saddleŚ-way above the stirrups I told him. He said, "Well, I will tell you. I will take my leg off now, and then I won't have to take it off down at the river." He had a cork leg. He had lost his own leg when a team had run away several years before. So he swung that cork leg around his neck. The leg would have been ruined if it had got wet.- -soaking wet, at least. After we crossed the stream, he put his leg back on and we rode to the ranch.

I was very much pleased when I could find the doctor home, as then I would have company back. I was very fond of the doctor and evidently he was pretty fond of me after having treated me for a whole year. He talked to me a great deal, when we had the chance, about my becoming a doctor. I guess he instilled that into me and I never recovered from it.

We didn't have a bridge across this river, but we did have a foot-log where we could cross afoot when the river wasn't up. When the river was up, you just didn't cross unless you took a chance of having to swim, and it was very swift.

My father finally built a fence on the ranch. He put me to digging some post holes. I guess I was about seven years of age then, and we had to dig the holes in almost solid rock. He gave me some fuse that we called dynamite fuse. The fuse was in sticks about one foot long, and he told me to drill a hole down the middle of the post hole a few inches deep and put one end of the fuse down there and tamp it good and hard. Then I was to light the other end and run like the dickens. And that is what I did. It would blow out maybe three or four inches of rock, and I would dig that out. Then we would go through the same procedure again. Some days I dug two post holes, but most days I dug only one and part of another. That was a hard job for a big, strong man; for a kid seven years old it was almost impossible. However, I plugged away and got some post holes dug.

Things went along on the ranch about as they do on most ranches, I suppose. There were not very many changes made the next year or two. One of my brothers, three years a my senior, had a curvature of the spine. It didn't cripple him, but he was not as strong as I was and ever since I could remember I could throw him down, out-run him or out-jump him. Since he was three years older than I, you ordinarily would have expected him to be able to handle me, but he couldn't. We were not together a great deal, however, because I was doing one kind of work on the ranch and he was doing another.

Once, as I remember, somebody had taken the sheep herding job off our hands and Daddy told this brother and me that we could go down in the woods and chop up some stove wood. It was raining or had been raining or was cold or something. We knew all about cutting wood, so we did go there and cut some wood. Then I had an accident; I cut my foot. I cut a vessel and lost a lot of blood. At the time, I was thirty or forty yards away from my brother, and I hollered at him to come over to me. My foot was bleeding so profusely that he became frightened. Nevertheless, he took his handkerchief- -or both our handkerchiefs- -and tied the foot up the best he could. Then he carried me most of the way back to the house. I don't know how he managed to do that, but he did.

I was laid up quite a while with a bad foot. My parents didn't call a doctor; they didn't call him as a rule until they needed him badly. They treated my injury themselves. The foot finally got all right, but I was laid up with it for a long while. I still have a scar on that foot and will always have.

My father had a pair of old tooth forceps- -rusty most of the time. He pulled all our teeth while we were kids out there on the ranch, Whenever a tooth would start bothering us, Pa would get those old rusty, filthy forcepts off a plate or somewhere. They had been laying there catching dust for weeks and months, but he pulled a tooth out alright with them. I don't know how badly our teeth were infected at times, but we didn't die from the infection. We didn't have a dentist in those days, and the family doctors never filled a tooth. If he did anything for you, he pulled a bad tooth out. I can remember that these doctors didn't inject anything into the gum before pulling teeth. They didn't have anything to inject. Later they had cocaine, but it was so toxic that they seldom used it.

I never saw my paternal grandmother, Emily B. (Whitaker) Sparks She passed away a long time before I was born. My grandfather, Stephen Franklin Sparks, married again several years after that, and I remember my step-grandmother -Jane M.(Journey) Sparks, of course, very well. She was almost- -well, she was a wonderful woman; and we all thought a great deal of her, too. But she didn't live with us like my maternal grandmother did; so, naturally, we didn't have the opportunity to be with her as much. My grandfather married when his children were quite young, and she took that family in charge, in a real motherly manner, and they were all very fond of her. She was probably thirty-five or forty years of age when she married my grandfather. She had never married until then. But she knew about children. She took those children, with the youngest just a baby--I think his mother passed away when he was born--brought them up to manhood and womanhood.

My paternal grandfather was in the battle of Goliad and he was a San Jacinto veteran. He was not at the Alamo, but he was known throughout Texas on account of being a veteran of San Jacinto and having fought the Goliad War. He used to tell us children great things about his war days, about the reason they could kill most of the Mexicans before they even started shooting at them. The Mexicans smoked "cigaritos" he said, and the Texans would see the fire on the end of their "cigaritos." They would shoot at the spark and down would come the Mexican. His grandchildren would sit up for hours until midnight or more to hear him tell about his experiences. It was pretty wonderful.... When he came to Texas he preempted quite a bit of land. I have heard my grandfather say that they could buy a section of land for a pair of boots. I said, "Granddaddy, why didn't you buy up a lot of it?" He said, "Son, I didn't have the boots."

That's right, they had hardly anything. They didn't have any money. One year my grandfather made a crop, and the only money he had was $1.75. They could trade dressed turkeys and deer skins for groceries they couldn't raise themselves, such as sugar and coffee. I remember he said he and my grandmother went to church after he was married one Sunday. There was another lady there who had a new hat, a bonnet it was called then, and my grandmother fell in love with that hat and wished that she had one. It was so beautiful, that she was beside herself nearly. Well, Grandfather found out that the lady's husband had paid for the hat by killing some wild turkeys and dressing them and sending them into town. So my grandfather, first thing Monday morning, went turkey hunting. From what he said, you could go anyplace nearly and kill as many turkeys as you wanted. I don't know how many he killed, but he found out how many it took to get a bonnet.

They lived twenty miles from town. They had some slaves, and he put a Negro boy on a horse with the dressed turkeys the same day he killed them, and sent them to town. It took the boy almost all day to get there, and he didn't get home that night. But he got home the next day, and he had the bonnet. Men, back there, all had a hard time, but from what history we can get, most of them were good to their families. They were just as good as they could be. Of course, circumstances were such that they couldn't be very good. They didn't have much to be good with.

My grandfather was also a missionary preacher. He traveled in a buggy with a double team all over the country preaching the gospel. He didn't charge anything for it. I don't know whether his congregations took up a collection or not, but not very likely. If they put anything in the hat, it might have been a turkey. They certainly didn't have any money. I went with him many a time on these trips. I couldn't have been over five years of age. Sundays, especially, he would go fifteen or twenty miles to preach in a certain place. They didn't have any church houses. There were some school houses scattered about, and I think that is where he preached. He took me along to open gates. At least, that is the way I figured it.