May 16, 2021

Pages 5270-5274
Whole Number 188


by Paul E. Sparks

[Editor's Note: In 1989, Paul E. Sparks, cofounder and late President of the Sparks Family Association, wrote an article about his parents, James and Sarah (Conley) Sparks. He did not consider it worthy of publication in the Quarterly, but because of several queries that we have received following Paul's death on March 4, 1999, we have decided to publish it at this time. Paul prepared an interesting article about his grandfather, Colby Sparks, for the Quarterly of June 1969 (Whole No. 66), pp. 1242-45. A photograph of Colby Sparks (1857-1951) with his wife, Martha (Chaffin) Sparks, and their eldest child, James William Sparks, Paul's father, appeared on the cover of the Quarterly for December 1991, Whole No, 156. This was followed by Paul's "Further Thoughts on the Fate of Hugh S. Sparks," his great-grandfather who served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War and whose disappearance after his return home from a Federal prison camp has long been a family mystery.]

Like most people, I have assumed that the hardest part of assembling a family history would be the collection of information about the earliest generations. For this reason, I have spent a great deal of time during the past 40 years gathering data about the generations long since departed, and have simply assumed that I could write the biographies of my parents and grandparents quite easily because I knew them firsthand. I now find this to be quite erroneous!

The account of the activities of my father which follows is hard-fact proof that I cannot make a sequential report of his life. I cannot establish dates; events tumble over each other in disorder; names long ago quite familiar have vanished from my memory; and (worst of all) I have no one to turn to - they (like my memory) are gone! I hope my readers will accept this excuse if they find errors, omissions, etc.

James William Sparks, better known as "Jim" or "J.B.", was born near Fallsburg, Kentucky, on January 18, 1880, son of Colby and Martha (Chaffin) Sparks; he was a 7-year-old boy when his parents moved to Texas in August 1887 to grow cotton. The family went by train from Louisa, Kentucky, to Dallas, Texas, and then by wagons to a cotton farm near Forney, about 20 miles east of Dallas. There they endured consecutive crop failures in 1888 and 1889, but in 1890, their crop was looking fine when Jim's mother took sick in June. Her plight was desperate and her doctor warned her husband that she could not continue to live in that climate. The family returned by covered wagon to Lawrence County, Kentucky, arriving at Morgans Creek in January 1891, just a week before Jim celebrated his 11th birthday. (The story of this trip is told in the June 1969 issue of The Sparks Quarterly, Whole No. 66.)

Jim continued to attend the one-room school at Morgans Creek, and it was there that he changed his given names. His teacher was a maternal uncle, William James Chaffin, just nine years older than he. The similarity of their given names caused some degree of confusion at times, and so they agreed to use the diminutives, or nicknames, "Jim" and "Bill," and so James William Sparks became Jim Bill Sparks and William James Chaffin became Bill Jim Chaffin. Soon these became J. B. Sparks and B. J. Chaffin, names they used for the rest of their lives.

(The practice of bestowing two given names on newly-born children did not become common in the United States until the mid 1800s, and led immediately to another practice, namely, that of using both of the given names when speaking to or of the name-bearer. This custom was particularly true of persons living in the southern part of our country where, even today, we frequently encounter "Mary Sue," "Martha Belle," etc. Nor were male children exempt from this practice, thus the sons of Jim and Sarah Sparks were called "Paul Emerson" and "James Edison" until adulthood.)

The period of Jim Sparks' life from ca. 1895 to 1905 remains somewhat of a mystery to me. I never heard him refer to the Spanish-American War, although his lifetime friend, Landon Bradley, volunteered to serve in that conflict. He did go to East Liverpool, Ohio, ca. 1903, where he worked in a ceramic manufacturing plant. He believed that is where his hair began falling out.

In 1905, Jim was in Burnwell, West Virginia, where he had a job in the coal mines. It was there that he met and courted Sarah Elizabeth Conley, daughter of Isaac R. and Martha (Sexton) Conley. They were married in Kanawha County on November 2, 1905. Their first child, Martha, was born 3 February 1907, at Burnwell. It was also at Burnwell that he joined the Knights of Pythias. His sword, a part of his official regalia, hung on the upstairs wall of our farmhouse until long after I was grown.

by the time Jim Sparks reached adulthood, he was nearly six feet tall, and he weighed close to 190 pounds. He was inclined to be fleshy and was a hearty eater. He never drank anything with alcohol in it, and he always said that he had promised our mother that he would refrain from drinking if she would marry him. He was addicted to the use of chewing tobacco, and he liked to smoke an occasional cigar or a pipe. He had brown eyes, a fair complexion, and, until he lost his hair, it was brown and curly. He was a good baseball player, and he liked to watch baseball games and prize fights.

Jim took his family to Morgans Creek soon after Martha's birth. Here, he used the money he had saved to attend a business school in Lexington, Kentucky, and he received a diploma from the Wilbur R. Smith Business College, successor to the Commercial College of the Kentucky University, on March 5, 1909. His first son, Paul Emerson Sparks (myself), was born in the following January one day before Jim became 30 years of age.

The next few years saw no major changes in the lives of Jim and Sarah. They lived in a small, log cabin just a few hundred yards downstream from his parents. They attended the Morgans Creek Methodist Church where Jim sang in the choir. He continued to work with his father on the farm during the spring and summer and to work in the coal mines of neighboring counties during the winter. His children went to the same one-room school he had attended. Martha began school in 1915 and Paul in 1916. Another daughter, Eva, was born in 1912, and another son, James Edison, was born in 1916.

Pictures of James and Sarah appear here
Jim Sparks (1880-1955) and Sarah (Conley) Sparks (1887-1922)

In 1913 and again in 1917, Jim ran for the office of Lawrence County Court Clerk, but was defeated in the primary election. He ran on the Democratic ticket. After his last defeat, he persuaded Sarah to leave Lawrence County and go with him to a mining camp at Hardy, Kentucky, in Pike County. He was a mine foreman when World War I ended in November 1918. Shortly afterwards, he was released ("fired" would be a more exact term) for sympathizing with his fellow employees about their working conditions. Again, the family returned to Morgans Creek.

The Sparks homeplace on Morgans Creek occupied a very special place in the life and heart of Jim Sparks. It was just an ordinary, 164-acre hillside farm in Lawrence County, and only a subsistence kind of living could be earned on it, but during his lifetime it represented security for him. It had been acquired by his father, Colby Sparks, about the time that Jim had been born, and it became a haven for all of Colby' s children, and for many of his grandchildren. Time after time, during his 93-year life span, Colby welcomed the return of his children and grandchildren. Jim returned there several times during his lifetime.

World War I had caused a boom in the rubber industry at Akron, Ohio, and two of Jim's sisters lived there, so Sarah persuaded him to leave coal mining with all of its hazards and to try his hand at rubber manufacturing. He went to Akron in the spring of 1919 and got a job with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. He lived with his sister, Nora, and family until he could send for Sarah and the children. Another child, Hettie Conley Sparks, arrived that spring.

The years of 1920 and 1921 were pleasant and productive ones for Jim and Sarah. They bought a small, two-room house quite near his sister, Nora, and Jim proceeded to make it into a modest, two-story home by working on it during weekends. The children attended Thomastown School (grades 1-8). During the summer of 1921, Jim's parents visited them for several days.

Tragedy hit the family in February 1922 when Sarah gave birth to their sixth child, Dorothy, and birth complications caused Sarah's death on February 9th. She had not reached her 35th birthday. Jim brought her back to Morgans Creek where she was buried in the Sparks Cemetery on a cold, miserable day. He returned to Akron, scarcely knowing what to do.

The family broke up. Five of the children, including the baby, went to live with Jim's parents and his sister, Rose. Daughter, Eve, went to live with her maternal grandparents and her aunt, Bertha Conley. Jim persuaded his sister, Dewey, and her husband to come to live with him. He continued to work for Goodyear.

Tragedy struck Jim's family again in the summer of 1924 when his daughter, Hettie Conley Sparks, died from typhoid fever. She was buried in the Sparks Cemetery on a hot July afternoon.

Jim remarried in the summer of 1927. His wife was Gertrude Kidwell, a spinster. They purchased a house in Akron and brought Jim's son, Paul, and his daughter, Eve, to live with them. The marriage did not survive, probably because of the economic depression which began in 1929, and during which Jim lost his job with Goodyear. Again he returned to Morgans Creek and rejoined his father and sister in the home place. His mother had died in 1929.

In 1933, Jim was elected to the Lawrence County Board of Education, a position he held until he ran for the State Legislature in 1937 as representative. He was defeated. He resigned from the Board of Education and went to Lexington, Kentucky, where he got a job at the Central State Hospital. It was there that he met his third wife, Mary Boyers, a widow. This marriage, too, did not last. World War II was on the horizon, and more lucrative jobs beckoned and were available, even to a 60-year-old man, so he and Mary separated.

For a time, Jim managed an apartment building in Logan, West Virginia, but then he went back to Akron where he worked until the end of the war in a war-related industry. He then returned to the old home place on Morgans Creek.

Colby Sparks died in June 1951 and at his funeral, Jim's children could notice an unnatural swelling in their father's neck and throat. Several weeks earlier, he had had a chronic lip sore removed, but not before it had dropped cancer cells into his lymphatic system. The swelling of the lymph nodes on both sides of his throat testified to the tardiness of the operation and gave ample proof that he should have an operation immediately. He came to Louisville, Kentucky, where he had two separate operations for the removal of the cancer.

Jim returned to Morgans Creek, but he never regained his usual vigor, nor his appetite. He went to Akron to visit his youngest daughter in January 1955 and became critically ill. He asked to be returned to Kentucky and was brought by train to Ashland, Kentucky, on February 14, 1955. He went into a coma and was taken to the hospital. He never regained consciousness. He was buried beside his beloved Sarah in the Sparks Family Cemetery. He had returned home for the last time. Jim and Sarah were the parents of six children:

1. Martha Washington Sparks was born 3 February 1907, at Burnwell, West Virginia. She married Fred T. Davis on October 16, 1934, and they had one child, Sara Margaret. Martha died on March 15, 1985, and Fred died on February 17, 1987.

2. Paul Emerson Sparks was born January 17, 1910, on Morgans Creek, Kentucky. He married Mary Sue Miller on November 9, 1933, and they had one child, Robert, [Paul died on March 4, 1999, and Mary Sue died the following day.]

3. Eva Virginia Sparks was born November 12, 1912, on Morgans Creek. She married Roy C. Fields on June 9, 1934, and they have six children: Pauline; Rita Ann; Kay; James; Roy, Jr.; and David. Roy, Sr. died on April 14, 1980.

4. James Edison Sparks was born August 24, 1916, on Morgans Creek. He married Lona Christian on September 21, 1948, and they had five children: Ralph; Colby; Larry; Garry (died October 1965); and Joseph.

5. Hettie Conley Sparks was born April 4, 1919, on Morgans Creek. She died on July 12, 1924.

6. Dorothy Lenora Sparks was born January 31, 1922, at Akron, Ohio. She married Warren G. Murphy on February 26, 1946, and they have two children, Michael and Warren, Jr.