Whole Number 101
by Russell E. Bidlack
With the publication of the December 1977 issue of The Sparks Quarterly (Whole No. 100), THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION closed the 25th year of its history. As we enter our second quarter-century, perhaps your editor may be forgiven if he uses some space to reminisce (a sure sign of maturity if not old age). Perhaps he may also be forgiven for the abandonment of the editorial second person on this occasion.
My own interest in genealogy had its beginning while I was a junior in college in 1940. A favorite English professor, Dr. Harold Francis Watson, in explaining the historical events portrayed in a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Hawthorne, would frequently refer to the whereabouts of one of his ancestors during that episode in English or American history. Thinking how much more interesting the study of the past would be if one could relate his own family to historical events, I asked Dr. Watson after class one day how a person might go about tracing his ancestry. After a long pause, Dr. Watson responded: "I hesitate to tell you because the genealogical bug may bite you, in which case you will be lost forever." He did tell me, however, and I began the search--the genealogical bug did bite and, indeed, I have been a victim of this fascinating hobby ever since.
While serving in the U.S. Army in 1942, I married my college sweetheart, Melva Helen Sparks. Having searched my own family lines quite extensively by this time, it was natural that I should pursue my wife's ancestry also, which, incidentally, helped to establish a close friendship with my father-in-law, Oral A. Sparks; he entered enthusiastically into the search with me. We soon traced the Sparks line from Iowa, to Missouri, then to the Wilkes-Surry County area of North Carolina.
In 1944, I found a reference in a genealogical handbook to a William Perry Johnson who was also interested in the Sparks family of Wilkes and Surry Counties in North Carolina. A correspondence was begun that has continued ever since. At that time (1944), Mr. Johnson was living in Los Angeles after having served a brief time in the U.S. Army. In his reply to my query, he revealed that he had become interested in family history when he was only 16 years old. After a decade of research, he was then considering whether he might make a professional career of genealogy. This he subsequently did, and William Perry Johnson is recognized today as one of the leading professional genealogists in the country.
It was in December 1951 that the third member of the "triumvirate" that would found THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION was added. I had written to a Rev. Bailey F. Davis in Franklin, Kentucky, who had published a query in a magazine called Genealogy and History regarding his wife's Sparks line. In his reply, dated December 19, 1951, the Rev. Mr Davis noted: "I was in the Filson Club (in Louisville) recently and a man came in and took a chair at my table. Soon I heard him discoursing with the librarian on the Sparks family so I 'nosed in'." He went on to say that this man was interested primarily in the Sparkses of Lawrence County, Kentucky. "He had his line sketched on brown paper and I glanced at it. ... His name and address is Paul Sparks, 155 North Hite, Louisville 6, KY."
As it turned out, Paul Sparks had recently contacted Mr. Johnson, and it was soon discovered that Paul's ancestors had come to Kentucky from the same part of North Carolina where my wife's family and that of William had lived. Paul's interest in genealogy had grown out of his close personal relationship with his grandfather, Colby Sparks, with whom he had lived following the death of his mother in 1922. Colby Sparks, who died on June 3, 1951, at the age of 93 loved to reminisce about his forefathers and pioneer times and, with his passing, Paul had begun genealogical research to add to the store of family lore that his grandfather has passed on to him.
The three of us, William, Paul, and I, began exchanging the Sparks data we had collected, sharing our records and our speculations regarding family relationships. It usually happens that, when serious genealogical researchers pursue a family, the search extends much beyond their own direct ancestors, and the three of us gradually realized that we were building up an extensive data base on the Sparks family throughout America. We found ourselves in a position to assist other researchers concerned with branches of the Sparks family in no way connected with our own.
The genesis of THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION is found in a letter that William P. Johnson wrote to Paul Sparks and me on February 21, 1953: "In view of the fact that our Sparks research is no longer a matter of local interest or magnitude, but has grown to national proportion (or, as the old lady said, 'My family tree has now become a forest'), I suggest that we organize a Sparks Family Association, or some such title, and publish a small quarterly sheet devoted to family history and genealogy. Call the publication THE SPARKS BULLETIN, for example, have a membership roll, and charge a fee of $1.00 per year, which entitles the member to receive also the publication."
My own response to William's plan was that, while I found the idea of an association and a family publication intriguing, I simply could not give time to such a project until I had completed my doctoral studies then in progress at the University of Michigan--I was determined to finish my dissertation by the spring of 1954. The founding of THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION was, therefore, primarily the project of William Perry Johnson and Paul E. Sparks, although I did agree to take the post of Secretary-Treasurer. Paul became President of the Association and William accepted the title Historian-Genealogist. Paul assumed responsibility also for editing, publishing, and mailing what we finally agreed should be called The Sparks Quarterly. The first issue was dated March 1953.
Members who own the complete file of the Quarterly may finding it interesting to read in the first issue the statement regarding what we were attempting to do, including a sketch of how each of us had become interested in the history of the Sparks family. A sentence from that statement may be worth quoting here: "Since the three officers and founders of THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION were born between 1910 and 1920, they look forward to at least half a century of activity in the Association." Well--thus far we have kept half of that promise, haven't we?
At least three hundred family associations such as that of the Sparks family have been founded in the United States through the years, but very few have survived for a quarter of a century and rarely has such an organization enjoyed the generous degree of financial support from its membership as has THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION. The primary reason for our financial stability has been the provision for different kinds of memberships and different dues structures. Initially there were two memberships, with "active" at $1.00 per year and "sustaining" at any amount which the individual member wished to contribute. Later, active membership was increased to $2.00 and then to the present $3.00, and a contributing membership was added ($14.00). As the 1977 financial report of the Secretary-Treasurer clearly indicates, it is the sustaining membership that has provided the extra margin of support which has proven to be so vital. In 1977, out of our total of 544 paid memberships, 243 paid sustaining membership dues ranging from $5.00 to $200.00.
As we invited persons with Sparks ancestry to join the new Association, there were many who laughed at our plan, especially our goal of a membership of 300. One rather well-to-do Sparks expressed his skepticism by saying, "If you can ever persuade as many as 300 people to join, I'll give you $100." He never expected to have to pay up, but he did, in 1955.
As the membership grew, the Quarterly increased from its original six pages to ten and then to a minimum of 20. In September 1954, I succeeded Paul as editor; my doctoral studies at the University of Michigan had been completed while his at Indiana University were beginning at that point.
As is repeated in each issue of the Quarterly, the ASSOCIATION was founded "as a non-profit organization devoted to the assembling and preserving of genealogical and historical materials pertaining to the Sparks Family in America." As the annual financial report of the Secretary-Treasurer to the membership indicates, all monies received are used to conduct research and to publish The Sparks Quarterly. The countless hours that have been devoted to this project by the three officers represent for each of us a "labor of love." Only with this kind of personal commitment can a family magazine survive.
The Sparks "family" encompassed in our project includes dozens of individual Sparks families that are in no way related--there is no common ancestor for all persons named Sparks in America. THE SPARKS FAMILY ASSOCIATION is not a social organization, and The Sparks Quarterly is concerned only with Sparks history and genealogy, not the personal activities of its members. We have not held, nor do we contemplate holding, any kind of family reunion. Our communication with our members is through correspondence and the Quarterly, in which we are always happy to include genealogical queries. Some individual branches of the Sparks family do hold reunions and other social events, of course.
Our total paid membership reached its highest figure, appropriately, in our 25th year, with a total of 544. Likewise, the Association's income reached an all-time high in 1977 of $4,714.02. Because the study of family history has always had greater appeal to people of retirement age than to youth, few of our charter members are still living (for example, only 18 of our first 100 members remain with us). Furthermore, the interest in genealogy of many who join the Association is short-lived, so it is essential that we try constantly to attract new members. New members frequently provide new data, of course, on some branch of the family. Paul Sparks has made a special effort, at his own expense, to acquaint potentially interested people in our project. Each year he mails invitations to scores of persons named Sparks whose addresses he has found in telephone books or that have been supplied by our members. Over the past 25 years, a total of 1,691 individuals have been members of the Association at one time or another.
We are sometimes asked, having published nearly 2,000 pages of Sparks history and genealogy in the Quarterly, how much longer we will have new material to publish. The answer is that we cannot imagine a time when we will have nothing more to add. We have on hand enough to fill several thousand pages, and more is added nearly every day. Our chief problem is to find time to organize these data for publication.
Photographs of the three founders and officers of the ASSOCIATION appeared in early issues of the Quarterly: that of Paul Sparks appeared on the cover of the issue for September 1956; William P. Johnson, with pictures in the background of 214 of his ancestors, was featured on the cover of the March 1957 issue; while my picture appeared in March 1959. It will be noted that we all appear on the cover of the present issue and that the years have taken their toll. We promise to appear again, properly aged, when we celebrate the close of the ASSOCIATION'S 50th year--in 2002!