March 10, 2021

Pages 2421-2423
Whole Number 118


A correspondent has recently sent us copies of some very interesting newspaper clippings of nearly a century ago pertaining to one of the most severe storms ever to occur in the Midwest and the eastern states. This was the Great Blizzard of January 1888.

In the Quarterly of March 1969 (Whole No. 65) we published a record of the family of John Sparks, son of Hardy and Martha (Motley) Sparks, who died near Beatrice, Nebraska, during that famous storm (January 12, 1888). As part of that sketch, we published a newspaper account written in 1905 on the 17th anniversary of the Great Blizzard. We now have the account that appeared in a Beatrice, Nebraska, newspaper called the Gage County Democrat on January 19, 1888, just one week following the death of John Sparks. This account reads as follows:

The report yesterday that John Sparks, a farmer living about eight miles west of the city, had been frozen to death while attempting to drive home in the blizzard Thursday afternoon was confirmed by authentic advises received from Ellis last night. His body was found in the snow about a quarter of a mile from home. As has already been stated, his team, unhitched from his wagon, came home yesterday morning. This led to the fear that Mr. Sparks had perished in the snow. The fear was realized by the finding of his body yesterday afternoon. Mr. Sparks had been in town, and although warned and urged not to go, he started for home about fifteen minutes after the blizzard began. To make the undertaking more hazardous, he had a heavy load of coal and some merchandise in his wagon. He was a very determined man and was bound to go home. How near he succeeded will be seen by the fact that his body was found but a short distance from home. The pity of it is that after making so determined a battle with the elements he should have perished when he had so nearly reached home.

Mr. Sparks was one of the oldest citizens of the county, having lived here about eighteen years. He was a well-to-do farmer, and a man of some prominence in the affairs of the county. His home was eight miles west of Beatrice. He was a member of the Nebraska house of legislature in the winter of 1879, having been elected on the anti-monopoly ticket. He was about 60 years old, was twice married and leaves a large family, among whom are some small children. He was a good man, well liked by all who knew him, and his untimely death will be regretted all over the county. At this time the funeral arrangements have not been completed.

Although the following item is not dated, it would appear that this further account of the death of John Sparks was published in the same weekly issue of Gage County Democrat.

JOHN SPARKS' DEATH. In response to the urgent request of the family of the late John Sparks, Coroner Summers started Saturday for their home west of the city, to see if an inquest ought to be held. With him was Dr. Bradley, who was going out to Charley Stevens' to see Ed. Maxwell, the young man who came so near freezing to death Thursday night. The doctors found that the storm on the prairie was almost as bad as it was Thursday afternoon. It was with considerable difficulty that they got as far as Stevens' which is on the road to Sparks'. It was the intention that Dr. Somers should drive from there to Sparks', but the storm was so bad that he concluded to remain over night at Stevens', which he did, and went on to Sparks' Sunday morning.

When Coroner Somers arrived at the Sparks home he learned the particulars of Sparks' tragic death, and decided that an inquest was unnecessary. Sparks was nearly half a mile from home. It seems that he left the road not far from where he was found, and wandered across a small piece of braking to a wire fence. Here he became turned around for he was facing east instead of west. He was on his feet, slightly stooping, and one hand was grasping the wire fence. His wagon was found almost half a mile back of where he left the road. It seems that he unhitched the team, and probably was too nearly chilled to get on one of the horses. The horses arrived home all right, and had Mr. Sparks been able to get on one of them he no doubt would have done so. He must have been bewildered and growing weak at this time, for he soon after wandered from the road to the spot where he perished.

He will be buried probably tomorrow in the cemetery near his home, but at this time funeral arrangements have not been made. He has a brother in Wichita, Kan., and another in Chicago, who have been sent for, and whose arrival is waited.

We do not have a detailed record of the family of John Sparks. As noted, he was a son of Hardy Sparks of Wilkes County, North Carolina, who moved to Monroe County, Indiana, in the 1830's, and later to Greene County. We believe Hardy to have been a son of James Sparks and a grandson of Matthew and Sarah (Thompson) Sparks (see the Quarterly of September 1955, Whole No. 11, pp. 85-86, as well as that of the March 1969, Whole No. 65, pp. 1204-1210). The1. John Sparks noted here was a son of Hardy Sparks and his second wife, Martha (Motley) Sparks. John Sparks was married twice, first to Martha E. Holder in Greene County, Indiana, in September 1854. Her middle name was apparently Emmeline, by which name she was known in the family. She died ca. 1870 and John Sparks married (second) Martha A. Robinson. by his first wife he had four children: Newton Sparks, also called William, was born in Indiana ca. 1856. Sarah J. Sparks was born in Indiana ca. 1857. Mary E. Sparks was born in Indiana ca. 1858.; and John Jasper Sparks was born ca. 1862.

by his second wife, he had James H. Sparks (called Henry) was born ca. 1874. Laura F. Sparks was born ca. 1877. George W. Sparks was born ca. 1879. Alice Sparks; Ida Sparks; and Andrew Sparks, who was called Andy.

In the Quarterly of March 1969, page 1209, we also credited John Sparks with a son named Jasper, but this seems to have been an error.

We also have a newspaper account published in The Fairbury Journal in Fairbury, Nebraska, on May 8, 1958, regarding a son of the above John Sparks named John Jasper Sparks who was born May 11, 1863, in Illinois. As seen in the following account, he celebrated his 95th birthday on May 11, 1958.

John J. Sparks, who has lived in the Fairbury area longer than any other living pioneer, is looking forward to Sunday, May 11, his 95th birthday.

Making his 95th birthday an occasion, will be a visit with his sons, who are coming from Wyoming, O. D. Sparks of Wheatland, and Leslie Sparks of Torrington, and who will visit him and his daughter, Mrs. Claude Reynolds of Fairbury. Another son, Roy of Fruitland, Wyo., is unable to be here.

Although this hardy pioneer is bedfast, he enjoys visiting with company. He is being cared for in the home of Mrs. Fred Lindsley, 900 Lindell St., Fairbury.

Born May 11, 1863, in Illinois, he came west with his parents when 1 year old, settling in a dugout 8 miles west of Beatrice. Alert of mind, he can recall traveling the Overland trail from Beatrice to Fairbury when there was only one building along the trail, a log cabin which was north of where Harbine is now located.

As a boy, he saw his father shoot deer from the door of their dugout home. The first Sparks schoolhouse was named for his father, who built it, the lumber being hauled from a settlement on the Missouri river. Although only 9 at the time, he recalls how the settlers were aroused by the 1872 murder of 2 white men on Rock Creek, east of Fairbury, by an Otoe Indian, James Whitewater. Later Mr. Sparks "broke sod" on the former Indian reservation land, west of Diller, where he farmed for several years.

Indelibly impressed upon his memory is the blizzard of January 12, 1888, in which his father, John Sparks, lost his life. Driving a team hitched to a wagon loaded with coal and provisions, his father had started home from Beatrice the afternoon of the blizzard. The next morning the team arrived home alone. Searching parties late that afternoon found the frozen body near the wagon, in a snow drift about a half mile from home. The elder John Sparks had represented Gage County in the 1878-1879 state legislature.

Mr. Sparks farmed for many years in the Diller vicinity and also on the old home farm of Rev. J. O. Cramb, southwest of Fairbury.

The 95-year-old Mr. Sparks "allows for my long life by always being a light eater."