February 15, 2021

Pages 5745-5747
Whole Number 200

FIFTY YEARS OF The Sparks Quarterly

by Russell E. Bidlack

It is with the publication of the present issue of The Sparks Quarterly that the Sparks Family Association completes fifty years of existence. This issue of the Quarterly (Vol. L, No.4, Whole No.200, December 2002) also marks fifty years of publication.

It was in March 1953 that Issue No.1, comprising the first six pages of "The Official Publication of the Sparks Family Association, " was mailed to thirty individuals with whom the three "founders" had corresponded regarding Sparks genealogy during the previous several years. These three "founders" were Paul E. Sparks of Louisville, Kentucky, born January 17, 1910; William Perry Johnson of Raleigh, North Carolina, born May 16, 1918; and the present writer, Russell E. Bidlack, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, born May 25, 1920. Although we stated in that first issue that we anticipated the Association would continue to be active for at least half a century, now, at the half-century mark, only the youngest of the "triumvirate" remains among the living, age 82.

William Perry Johnson's Sparks ancestry had dated from his fourth great-grandmother, Susannah Sparks, daughter of John Sparks (born 1753) and his wife, Sarah (Shores) Sparks; Susannah married Charles Johnson in Surry County, North Carolina, ca. 1777. (A record of the lives of John and Sarah Sparks, with their children, appeared in the Quarterly of December 1955, Whole No.12, pp. 97-104.) William P. Johnson became a nationally known professional genealogist, his expertise being families of North Carolina. He died on October 17, 1980.

Paul E. Sparks, who served as the Association's president from 1953 until his death on March 4, 1999, also descended from John and Sarah (Shores) Sparks, through their son, George Sparks. Paul also did much of the research and writing for the Quarterly up to the time of his death. We published Paul's obituary in the Quarterly of June 1999 (Whole No.186, pp.5146-48).

The present writer, Russell E. Bidlack, has served as the Association's Secretary and Editor almost from its beginning.

From this point, I will use the first person in recalling the 50-year history of the Association and its Quarterly.

With the death of Paul in 1999, John K. Carmichael, Jr. took his place as president, and A. Harold Sparks became the Association's vice-president. See the September 1999 issue of the Quarterly Whole No.187, pp. 5196-97 for a photograph and biographical sketch of John, whose nickname is Jack.

When we reached our 25th anniversary in March 1978, I prepared for that issue of the Quarterly a record of our Association to that point and included on the cover photographs of the three founders--then, all still living. Since few of our present members were then active, I will repeat or paraphrase below some paragraphs from that 1978 issue.

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 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 his Sparks line back from Iowa to Missouri, then to the Wilkes/Surry Counties area of North Carolina. Eventually, we found my wife's 7th great-grandfather to have been an immigrant from Hampshire County, England, to Queen Annes County, Maryland. This 1.2 William Sparks (1646-1709) proved, also, to have been the immigrant Sparks ancestor of both Paul E. Sparks and William Perry Johnson.

Several 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 half a century, and rarely has such an organization enjoyed the generous degree of financial support from its membership as has The Sparks Family Association. An important reason for our financial stability has been our provision for different types of membership and the resulting dues structure. Initially the founders provided for two memberships, with "active" at $1.00 per year and "sustaining" at any amount that the individual member wished to contribute. Later, active membership was increased to $2.00, then to $3.00; in 1979 the active rate became $5.00 and contributing membership was set at $10.00. Since 1997, active member- ship has been $10.00 per year, contributing $15.00, and sustaining any amount over $15.00. From six pages in length, the Quarterly had grown to at least 24 pages by 1978. Since 1985, the year I retired from the University of Michigan, each issue has been at least 40 pages in length. As will be noted, the last page of this, the 200th issue, bears the cumulative number 5780.

As is repeated in each issue of the Quarterly, our 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." by "family" we have meant descendants from a Sparks immigrant to America between 1607 and the present. As my annual financial reports to our members have noted, the officers receive no financial reward for their work; it is a "labor of love" for each of us. I believe that it is only with this kind of individual commitment that a family periodical can flourish.

The Sparks "family" encompassed in our project includes dozens of individual Sparks families that are unrelated--there is no common ancestor for all persons named Sparks in the United States.

The Sparks Family Association was not founded as a social organization, and the Sparks Quarterly is concerned only with Sparks genealogy and history, not the personal activities of its subscribers. We have not held, nor do we contemplate holding, any kind of reunion. Our communication with the association's members is through the Quarterly, in which we are happy to include genealogical queries. Some individual "branches" of the Sparks family do hold reunions and other social events, of course.

At the end of 1977, when our association had completed its 25th year, we proudly announced that our membership then stood at 544, an all-time high, and its income that year was $4,714.02. We noted then that, because the study of family history has always had greater appeal to people of retirement age than to youth, only 18 of our charter members were still living in 1977. None of those 18 is still with us today (with the exception of myself), but with the completion of 50 years, we can report a paid membership of 920, and dues amounting to $21,452.35. Sale of back issues, donations, and interest brought that total to $23,247.27 in 2002.

The interest in genealogy of many who join family associations is short-lived, and the number that join in a given year, but do not renew, may be greater than that of new members. Through the past fifty years, a total of 4,814 Sparks descendents have been members of our association at one time or another. Many of these are no longer living, of course.

As editor, and since the death of Paul Sparks, the Quarterly's principal author: How much longer will there be new material yet to publish? My answer: We still have on hand enough to fill several thousand more pages; my chief problem is finding time to organize and compile these records for publication.