Whole Number 66
Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in 1939 in The Big Sandy News, a weekly newspaper of Lawrence County, Kentucky. Its author, Colby Sparks, grandfather of the President of The Sparks Family Association, Dr. Paul B. Sparks, died in 1951 at the age of 93. Colby Sparks was named for a great uncle, the Rev. Colby Sparks, who was a Baptist preacher of Wilkes County, North Carolina. (See page 104 of the Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4, Whole No. 12, Dec, 1955.)
Colby Sparks and his father-in-law, G. W. Chaffin, and their families moved from Lawrence County, Kentucky, to Forney, Texas, in 1887 to become cotton farmers. But the Texas climate caused Mrs. Sparks’s health to fail, and this, coupled with two consecutive bad crop years, convinced Mr. Sparks that he should return to Kentucky. A trip from Texas to Kentucky in 1890 was no novelty, but Mrs. Sparks’s doctors warned her husband that she was too weak to change climates by train - thus the decision to return by covered wagons drawn by Texas mules.
In recounting the trip, Mr. Sparks made several geographical errors, but this is to be understood when we recall that he was remembering events at age 82 which had happened almost one-half century before.
Only two members of the group of fourteen persons who made the trip almost 80 years ago are now living. They are daughters of Colby Sparks, Miss Rose Sparks and Mrs. Flora (Sparks) Williams. Other members of the cavalcade were: George Washington and Margaret (Short) Chaffin and children: Bill Jim, Charlie, Tennessee, Emma, and Minnie; Colby and Martha (Chaffin) Sparks and other children, James and Nora; and Mr. Sparks’s mother, Nancy (Curnutte) Sparks.
It was the twenty-second day of Nov, 1890, when we started the long trek back to Kentucky in covered wagons drawn by four Texas mules, with a lead horse, a dog and some good trusty firearms. There were two families of us, seven in each family, and a happier big family could not have been found in all the west than we were when we left the little town of Forney, with its cotton gins and flat topped houses behind.
The first four days travel brought us to the border (or boundary line) between Texas and the Indian Territory. We crossed Red River at Colbert Ferry into the Chocktaw Nation which is now Oklahoma. We camped that night on the banks of Red River, and next morning I bid goodby to the Lone Star State with my views of life greatly changed since entering it. I was now willing to work hard for just the necessities of life if God would spare my wife to go through life with me, and this He did, for we lived together fifty years before she left me to go to her Eternal Home, where she is waiting for me today. I have traveled far along the uneven trail of life since that morning and like David of old, I have never once been forsaken, or had to beg bread.
We started next morning along dim trails, through deep forests of the Indian Territory, through which we traveled for thirteen days. At noon the following day we made camp, cooked our dinners, fed our teams and rested. Soon we were happily on our way again. B. J. Chaffin (my brother-in-law) and I decided we would walk awhile so we hit the trail and after walking for an hour or so we were quite a distance ahead of the team. I thought while we were waiting for the wagons to catch up with us, I’d entertain B. J. by preaching him one of Reuben Powers’ sermons. So I commenced, by text being: "We shall mount up as on wings of eagles. We shall run and not worry; walk and not faint." After soaring with this eagle through the blue ether until I had landed him safe in his home above, and had started to give his famous exhortation, I was rudely brought back to earth by a gruffy voice, saying "feeling pretty good, aren’t you, boys?" We turned to face a man with two forty-fives buckled around his waist and a Winchester (rifle) laying across his lap. He said, "Where is your whiskey, boys." We told him we didn’t have any, as the ferryman had told us we were not to bring any whiskey into the Territory. He smiled, and said, "So long, boys." He was one of Uncle Sam’s mounted patrolman looking for whiskey pedlers and other violaters of the law, but I never preached so loud any more while I was in the Indian’s land.
Not far from here we crossed Big Blue River. It was the first river we had crossed since entering the Territory. It was a deep stream and the water was as clear as crystal. We followed this river for many miles, going through a dense "canebrake" where we saw some "razor backed" hogs which looked like wild animals more than bogs. We then came to Muddy Boggy River. Here I bought my first feed from the Indians. It was rather difficult to trade with them as we could not understand each others language, but I showed them my sack, pointing to their corn crib, then to our teams. They sold us the corn. I asked what it was worth. They smiled and said "we, no savy!" So I took a dollar bill and some change iii my hand and offered it to them. They accepted the bill, but refused the change.
We didn’t travel many miles from this place until we made camp for the night. Next morning we came to Pony River. The bridge across it was made of round logs and was covered with water, which made it very difficult to drive over. Two of my wagon’s wheels ran off the bridge and we had to get in water waist deep to lift it back to safety. We soon made camp and had a good lunch. With dry clothes and a full stomach we were ready to face the unknown trail again.
There were very few trees missing from the great forests through which we were traveling. There was plenty of game, such as turkey, deer and bear in the unexplored forest and plenty of fish in the broad deep stream, and today, I can say, I do not blame the Indians for fighting to keep their land where they were born.
We crossed the Caddo River and camped for the night, and next day we drove through the country where the Little Missouri River flowed. We camped on the bank of the Little Missouri that night, and the next day we drove to Atoka, an Indian village at that time.
Here we saw the first railroad since leaving Texas. Atoka had one store, a feed stable, a court house and a Government school building. Here we camped over the week-end. We had some repairs made on our wagons and had our mules shod and Monday at noon we visited the school and saw one hundred Indian children, who were cared for by the Government. Their court house was a small boxed building. We were given permission to camp in the court house yard and court was in session and all were Indians except two white men. Many of the Indian men were wearing gold rings in their ears, while the women wore all kinds of beads and flashy jewelry.
Our faithful old dog became very sick at this place, and we thought the Indians had poisoned him, but he soon recovered and lived to be very old. We left this Indian camp Monday afternoon and stopped about two miles from town. It was not long after dark when a band of Indian women came riding down the trail, and I had to lead their ponies past our camp first, as they seemed to be afraid.
We followed the old military trail to the town of Goodland. Here we crossed the Kiamichi River and nearby stood the body of an old chimney, the only sign of civilization except the dim trail we were traveling. G. W. Chaffin remarked, "Here is where the old Indian was when he gave to the world that famous old fiddle tune ‘The Lost Indians’." A few miles from here, we came to where another dim trail crossed the one we were traveling and where the trails crossed, there was a large sign board. It looked to be very old, but carved in a neat hand, was the picture of two hands, one pointing upward, said "To Heaven, five million miles." The other one pointed downward, said "To Hell, one half mile." That day we drove late wanting to get as far away from the last named place as we could before we camped for the night.
The next day we left the Territory and entered Arkansas at a small town called Whitehouse. Here we crossed Cush River by ferry, then driving through Forest Grove to Cloteka Bay, where the Government had a public ferry. From here we headed straight for Little Rock, Arkansas. After another hard days driving we arrived in Little Rock. That night we camped in a livery stable. It was the first building that had sheltered us since leaving Forney, Texas. Next morning we left Little Rock for Memphis, Tenn.
We crossed the Arkansas River by bridge, and drove all day through beautiful virgin forests and late in the evening we crossed the Entwine River and camped close to the cabin of one of the early settlers. The people were very friendly through this section of the country. They lived in little log cabins with small plots of land cleared for gardens and corn. They only needed enough corn for their bread, as they had plenty of meat and all it cost them was ammunition for their guns.
We came to the Ouachita River which was a broad stream and very muddy at that time. We crossed it on a lumberman’s bridge. When we were about one-third the way across, we discovered the sign "condemned" and knowing we couldn’t turn back we had all these folks to walk across and when they were safely over, we drivers led our teams, thinking if the bridge gave way, we would try to make it to safety ourselves and when we were safe across we must have felt like the Pilgrim Fathers did when the Mayflower landed them on American soil. We drove through the rain most of the day and that evening we pitched our tents on the banks of Lancer River and next morning to our dismay, our trail was under water. The Mississippi River had overflowed the lowlands. Here I got the greatest scare of my life. We crossed this river on a wooden bridge, the butts of which at each end were very steep with no protection on either side. It was still raining and the bridge was very slick. As I started on the bridge I set my brakes very light and the wagon began to slip toward the edge. I saw that it was going over and there was only one thing for me to do, so I dropped my check lines and jumped to the bridge and picked up the hind carriage of the wagon and carried it back to safety, saving my family. That was the one time I was proud of my strength!
It was Christmas day, and we walked all morning in the water guiding the wagons in the road and about eleven o’clock we landed in Windtown, Arkansas where the Missouri Pacific and B. Knob Railroads crossed. Here we camped in the center of the little railroad town and many big hearted Arkansans, both men and women, came to visit us that evening. The next morning high water was all in our way. I put the folks on the train for Memphis, Tenn. It was a distance of forty miles. I had to stay in Windtown until three o’clock that afternoon before I could get a car in which to ship our wagons and mules, etc. I heard many big "yarns" while standing around the camp fire after the folks had left. I noticed one man in his shirt sleeves who didn’t have much to say. I ask him if he would like to have a drink. He replied "I would." We walked into a saloon, I ask him what he’d have, he said, "Straight whiskey." We listened to a few more of their jokes and I ask the fellow what he would have next. "Straight whiskey," he said, so I bought a pint and told him if he would help me take the wagons apart and put them in the box car he could have the pint. It didn’t take long to load the car. When it was done, I gave him the pint and the last I saw of him he was going toward the camp fire singing, "My Highland Mary."
I rode the local (train) with our teams to the town of Hopefield, here I ferried the Mississippi River in the Tom Spurlock ferry boat. From here the shifter (local engine) ran me into Memphis, Term. It wasn’t long until we were all waiting at the waiting at the wharfboat for the Missouri Packet, which would take us to Cincinnati. We were eight days and nights by river reaching Cincinnati. Here we transferred to the steamboat Boss Tony which brought us to Ashland, Ky. We camped in the suburb of Ashland that night and next morning we drove over to Cannonsburg. There we met John McDyre, the first man we recognized after reaching Kentucky. We camped that night at the Hazel Schoolhouse on East Fork and next day we reached Long Branch and ate dinner with E. Dall, the first table we had set down to since leaving Texas. We came by the way of Fallsburg (Lawrence Co., Ky.) and landed at Hardin Hulette’s on January 8th, 1891, after one month and twenty days of travel. This is a true story, as I remember and experienced it forty-nine years ago.
I am 82 years old [this was in 1939] and in a short time I am going on another trip where there are no dim trails or disappointments, but where my mansion home is already prepared, and a host of friends waiting f or me, and in all humility, I send my heartfelt thanks to Him who made all this possible for me.