History of Sparta
Early Days of Sparta's Industrial Growth; Coming of the Railroad
The little town of Sparta was here and named long before the railroad came. It is said Sparta was once called Brooksville. We do not know it was changed to Sparta (but at least 100 years ago), or who changed the name to “Sparta” which of course is for Sparta in Greece. Those who lived miles away and came to the Mill here often spoke of the place as “Ross’ Mill”. This mill was perhaps the first and for many years the most important enterprise in Sparta. The older people here think this “Mr. Ross” who was also a farmer, built the mill about 126 years ago. Sparta was an excellent mill site. The creek was harnessed with a dam, a deep race dug through which the water was sent to provide the slow power for grinding the early settlers wheat and corn into flour and meal. Though sanders mill was in a few miles, both mills did a thriving business. There were miles of country back of Eagle Creek without the water power for a dependable mill. Many people came who had to wait all day or night before they could get their “Grist”. The Owenton and Warsaw turnpike, which also ran beyond Owenton and into the Bluegrass, making the outlet to the Ohio River boats a Warsaw for miles of territory passed close to Ross’ Mill. The fore entered the creek on this Owen side between the mill and mouth of Two-mile Creek, then up through a large island to opposite the present L. & N. Depot on the Gallatin Co. Side. The bridge long since replaced the ford, but these deeply worn banks still show where the heavy oxen and horse drawn wagons for so long found their way across the creek. Since the mill was so important, a blacksmith . or “mechanic shop” would follow, also it was a good site for a country store. There was a ferry above the mill dam for light loads with the ferryman’s home on the road. It gave day or night service. Their activities called for a group of substantial log homes which were well built and comfortable; but not realizing how high Eagle Creek floods could be, they were all placed too near the creek, and only one sturdy old home remains of this group. The others were moved or abandoned. About this time also Sparta had a “tobacco factory”. The tobacco was stemmed by hand, made into “twists” which were packed into small kegs, so many dozen to the keg, sent to the river at Warsaw and shipped by boat to Cincinnati. This was said to have been excellent “chewing” tobacco.
When my great grandfather moved here 95 years ago, Sparta was all on the Owen County side in this little group near the mill but neither school or church were in this town. Jones and Pogue had an excellent store (with Masonic Hall above) and dealt in some fancy dress goods, real China and luxuries not often found except in river towns. There was a ridge (sic) put up some years later to take the place of the ferry. They tell me it was a cooperative affair built by the citizens of Sparta. One of my neighbors tells me his grandfather lost five hundred dollars in the venture. For either from fualty (sic) material or lack of good workmanship the bridge only stood a few years. Many local stories have to do with the fall of the old bridge. One is that a man with two horses hitched to a wagon came to the bridge one night and when he was about half across the bridge (which was a covered bridge), the horses reared up and refused to go on. The man became angry and cruel as men too often did with horses, beat them and cursed, but finally sent to their heads and found a span of the bridge had given way. A few feet more the horses would have plunged off the bridge dragging him and the wagon to the creek bed below. Another story was of the old, nearly blind, Negro man riding the gray horse. He could not see the danger signal at the bridge and rode over with part of bridge (I imagine this same part) falling after him. The old gray horse floundered over and ‘tis said the darkey was a very nice shade of white when he reached the bank on the other side. Mr. Pogue of Jones and Pogue store was a single man but Mr. Jedidia Jones was a well educated young man from “Back East”, North Westchester, Connecticut, to be exact, who had come “West” to seek his fortune. We think he may have been the one who named Sparta. He married a local girl and lived in Sparta, keeping his large store with a Masonic Hall above until the destructive flood of 1872 flooded his store, destroying his stock; and worse still floating away his books and thousands of dollars in accounts.
Another story of the days when the stage coach from Warsaw to Owenton had to cross Eagle Creek by ford relates, the crossing was being made one night after bed time, screams for help were heard from the island (the middle of the ford) when some of the men in Sparta ran to the bank to find a sudden flood water descending on the coach which was whirling around, and the frightened horses unable to pull the coach were struggling to free themselves from the vehicle. Mr. Johnnie Bond, who lived in Sparta, had a horse that was a famous swimmer, not afraid of high water and gentle. No time to arouse Mr. Bond, the neighbor ran to his barn, bridled the old gray and plunged into the roaring creek. Luckily there were only two passengers, a man and his young daughter who had started on a long journey. The good neighbor with the help of the brave horse got them and the driver of the bus to shore but with the loss of their luggage and the stagecoach. The horses may have freed themselves and made the shore farther down stream. The grateful man handed a ten-dollar bill to the man asking him to give it to the owner of “the horse that had saved his life”. The early Sixties brought their tragedies to Sparta as all over this land of ours the past generation could not speak calmly as we can of the shootings, hangings and after the war was over, the killings in retaliation. But the late Sixties brought a stir and excitement of a different kind. The rumor floating that a railroad was planned to connect Cincinnati and Louisville. Then when they heard it was to be surveyed up the Ohio Valley, they were worried. So worried, in fact, that many of the farmers, including my grandmother Ribelin, gave the right of way though it took some of her best land and split the farm half in two. The river valley farmers did not want their farms town up when they had the boats on the Ohio River to carry their products to market. While farmers at Sparta, 9 miles from the river, had to “hook up” to their wagons and start at day light to carry their produce to Warsaw and get home in time to milk before dark. Even a bunch of chickens had to be taken to the boat since there was no local market for chickens, eggs, butter or milk which the thrifty farmers’ wives had in abundance. My grandfather often laughed about his experience as a young man hauling a wagon load of chickens, mostly roosters, to Warsaw to sell to the boat. Selling chickens did not rate very highly as a business in the Fifties and grandfather [this part missing from the article] months. Then great grandmother’s farm was so over-run with chickens he had to do something about it; so he started very early hoping to get past the courthouse square and under the bank to the landing before his friends in Warsaw would be on the streets. Time did not favor him, however, and he always said every rooster crowed as he drove through Warsaw and everyone he knew attracted by the sound came ont (sic) and greeted him.
By the time the rumor of the railroad was in the air grandfather was raising cattle, also buying from other farmers and driving over the Warsaw and Owenton Pike and on into Georgetown to sell on county court days, or on private orders to the Bluegrass farmers to finish off on corn and their rich Bluegrass pastures as “export cattle”. Three and four year old fat steers, mostly for the English market shipped from Chicago. This road taken with the cattle was the main highway from Warsaw into the Bluegrass and on to Lexington. It led through the Big Woods between Owenton and Georgetown. Until after the Civil War this section was badly infested with highwaymen who robbed and murdered many travelers. The thought of being able to load cattle and hogs on trains right here in Sparta and that there would be stores buying the produce from farmers wives when they could ship it to the city, to say nothing of being able to reach Louisville and Cincinnati and return the same day, made Grandfather and his neighbors boosters for the railroad. Willing to put up with the temporary inconvenience of having the Shanty towns and barns on their land and general tear up construction.
At last the great day came when Mr. McGirk or Nigerle, I do not know how to spell the name, they say it sounded like Migerk and they called him Mack. He was contractor through the farm here, and his construction crew, Irish emigrants not long from the old country, and getting a foothold. Many of them were married and had their wives and children with them and were looking about for a place they might buy and establish homes in America. Some were working to send money back to bring their families over. They proved to be a steady, well meaning group who formed strong friendships with many of the people in and around Sparta. It took a long time to build with pick and shovel and all the dirt moved for fills was with team. Both oxen and horses were used, but the greater part by mule teams and dump carts owned by the railway company. Many of the local people also worked for four dollars and a half for a man and his wagon and team was a high price then. One of the bosses, John O’Toole by name, used to sit on a high bank and see the dumping of the dirt in making a fill was done in order. Each team of cart unloading and passing on in a line. There culverts, fills, and cuts to be made and the children, my mother and her three little cousins, the Ribelin boys, looked in wonder and awe at these engineering feats. There was a rock quarry on the hillside here where rock was dug out, later “dressed” to make the wall for the culverts.
The little shantytown was located at our farm, crossing near the Jameson Hole in Eagle Creek; and the women often enjoyed fishing with pole and line. Landed many a nice one for supper or breakfast too. The Company Store, or Commissary as they called it, was just at the foot of the hill on Uncle Morton Ribelin’s farm. This supplied flour, bacon and the staple groceries while Grandmother and her neighbors did a thriving business selling milk, eggs, butter, chickens and, as the weather grew cooler, geese to the new neighbors. Neighbors, they really considered them. Every day some of the women were at the house for food and if lonely or homesick sat down to talk to the little old woman (Great Grandmother Ribelin) sitting in the rocking chair knitting, or with the big Bible on her knees reading. Her experience had spanned more than eighty years of living and growing up with Kentucky from almost a wilderness. She was able to talk intelligently with them about the country which they came from and tell them interesting stories about her beloved Kentucky. The children often played with the children here, and when a priest came to say mass for the people on Sunday, the children invited mother and her cousins to come. So scrubbed and dressed up, they all went down to the “Meeting in the Big Shanty”. The service was strange to the children, but the grown folks made them welcome, and mother, who was the only little girl, sat between the two little Everson girls of whom she was especially fond and who seemed glad to have her with them.
Mr. Migerk and the young storekeeper and clerk, Mr. Jo Huffman boarded with Uncle Morton and Aunt Lucy Ribelin who lived in the big log house on top of the hill. These tow boarded the young school teacher, Miss Bettie Ellis, sho taught at the “Craigmyle School House”. This was a one room building on what was long known at the Holton Farm, now belonging to Mrs. Deatherage. It was the school for the children on this side of Eagle Creek shile those in Sparta sent to “Little Hope” school on Two-mile Creek. This [part missing] men hauled and cut the wood to heat it in the winter and the “big boys” took turns coming early to build the fire and if they failed, the teacher had to build it herself.
Well, a romance grew up between the teacher and the storekeeper and that was Miss Bettie’s last school. She soon became Mrs. Joe Huffman, later lived at Lexington, Kentucky, to a very old age.
It might interest us how farm products sold for about 1869. You bought hens without weighing at $.25 apiece (Leghorn or Plymouth Rock). An old rooster for soup could sometimes be bought for a dime if his folks wanted to get rid of him. Geese at that time were valued for their feathers so they brought a dollar each. Butter was ten cents per pound. Sour milk was ten cents per gallon. Whole milk from from fifteen to twenty cents per gallon. Eggs, ten cents a dozen, except in the summer when they were down to six. Yet, the women were glad to be able to sell these products at that low price for it meant cash for an unusual surplus.
Came the long looked forward day, when the first train would make the entire run from Louisville to Cincinnati. Feeling this was a history making event, several men from Sparta were eager to ride the first train. This was not a trip for the ladies as it was not a passenger train, just a bunch of open cars drawn by a wood burning engine with an immense "smoke-stack" like a funnel. There were piles of cord wood prepared at given distances along the track and the passengers gladly jumped out and helped to load the wood onto the train to keep their “iron horse” going until they could get to Cincinnati. I wish I could get the names of all who sent from Sparta. My grandfather, D. C. Jameson, and a Mr. Brock were two. I think I have heard my mother say there were four who made this trip. This little train heavily loaded was sent over the entire road to test and inspect the road bed. Then came the first passenger train and a Covington paper of the time had a wonderful and very amusing write-up about that. Needless to say every man, woman and child was out to see it and wave their good wishes. Some of the older folks say F. & A. Cox and Co., of Owenton, built the first depot and rented it to the railroad company; however, the way I heard it from my family was that the railroad company built the depot at Sparta themselves. The Cox Co. Built a large barn near the depot and had many wagons and teams of mules. For years they ran a transfer business from Owenton to Sparta. The pioneers of the present Owenton and Sparta Transfer Company. If they owned it or not, F. & A. Cox Company ran the depot which was also store and post office. This depot was the first building in Sparta on the Gallatin County side. It was located on the farm belonging to the heirs of Mr. Robert Bond. There soon followed a hotel close by to care for the traveling public. This was built and run by Parnell and Whllhoite and other houses soon followed facing the railroad, so Railroad Street came into being. A store was built on the corner where the present hotel is and a large dwelling house where the Clover Farm Store is located.
[ END OF FIRST INSTALLMENT ]
In 1872 or 1873 a covered bridge was built across Eagle Creek near the depot. Mr. George A. Wigal came to Sparta top build this bridge. No fault in construction this time, the old covered bridge stood a landmark of Sparta until a few years ago when a fire destroyed so much of it that an open metal one has replaced it, but rests on the same rock pillars. Mr. Wingal remained in Sparta the remainder of his long life as one of its best known and best loved citizens.
After the coming of the raid-road (sic), Sparta began to have growing pains, deeming herself a very important shipping point for the raidroad. (sic) The town on the Owen side was laid off with streets and alleys. I wish I knew who did this plotting and surveying. I have seen the plot and it was very interesting though I never heard any of the streets called by those names. A school district was laid off, part in each county. A large school house to be known as the Old Red School House with Masonic Hall above to a later generation was built on land given for the purpose by Mr. A. D. Mason. Part of this building was blown away by a storm in the late 70’s. The large yard planted to trees for shade and the grounds to be used for outdoor community gatherings. This work was done free by the Samuel boys. Yes, there was a plank fence around this enclosure to protect the children from the dangers of the street; also a stileblock from which to mount your horse.
The Christian and Baptist Churches were organized and for several years held their services in this building until they built their own church buildings.
Meantime on the Gallatin side Sparta was growing out the Warsaw pike. Main Street was beginning to look its name and there were more houses on Rail-road Street. There was still the old stagecoach, a relic even then, coming in every evening from Owenton. As he came through the covered bridge, the driver reined the horses’ heads high and as he came out onto the crossing, he cracked his whip and the fory horses dashed up to the side of the depot with a great flourish. While the horses were being changed and waiting for the train, the children gathered about the coach sometimes venturing inside to sit on the red velvet seats and play they were traveling. The little wood burner of the construction train had gone on to work elsewhere. They had real engines in 1870 and one of the early engineers who piloted them over this road was Berry DeVise. How those Sparta folks in the Seventies and Eighties did travel! Long planned visits to friends and kinsfolk that would have never been made by stagecoach or river boat became so easy and cheap by train. Business trips to Louisville or Cincinnati, home in time for the farm work at night. The women in groups of from two to six made their plans to go shopping to Cincinnati or Covington. The Warsaw and the Vevay, Ind., stores must have felt the loss of trade to say nothing of the home stores. The busiest women only went twice a year, once in spring and once in the fall. Another great idea was sending small children “in care of the conductor” from one town to another. One lady tells me that she remembers traveling back and forth on the train when she was so small the kind conductor would sit down by her and hold her on the seat until the train made its lurching stop at Sparta. Then he would lead her off and hand her over to her waiting grandparents. People traveled, too, for pleasure visiting interesting places they had wanted to see. After the L. and N. Bought out the shortline and acquired this outlet to Cincinnati, there were great improvements in type of coaches and engines, also in the upkeep of the roadbed.
The L. & N. Was always improving service, fostering excursions, advertising scenic places reached by their lines just as the bus lines do now. It was the great day of the railroads and they surely did all they could to give the highest type of service to the traveling public and to earn and keep the good will of the little towns like Sparta and the farms through which their stock rolled. Many times a through passenger train has stopped in Sparta to bring a special doctor to the bedside of someone who was ill, or to pick up the family of someone who had frown suddenly worse in a city hospital and the call had come for the family. Expensive as it was to stop those trains, I have seen them stand until a cot with a very ill or badly injured patient could be lifted and adjusted in the baggage car on its way to the hospitals in a city. Those courtesy stops must have cost the railroal (sic) company thousands of dollars every year.
Sparta on the Gallatin side has had an attempt that was not a success, for a machine run mill. At one time there was a tobacco receiving barn here and two livery stables, one of which, as usual, has become the garage. A meat curing plant located just back of the present Clover Farm Store was attempted by Dr. J. B. Grant in the Nineties. This idea was good, supplying the town with fresh meat and sausage and curing the hams and bacon by the same methods the farmers used here, to sell to an exclusive trade in the city. The ides was food and the people in Sparta enjoyed being able to buy meat, until warm winter made such a heavy loss in spoiled meat the plant closed.
Sparta had many good general stores, hardware stores and groceries and a lumber yard. Before the First World War, the nurseries came to Sparta bringing a new interest and attraction as well as employment to many people. The Donaldson Nursery is located on the Owen county side and the Willowdean in Gallatin, both in the edge of Sparta. Sparta has had several destructive fires and several bad flood s but though far from living up to that plot of the Seventies that spread out with so many streets, she still, with her railroad, feels very much on the map.
I do not know for sure who was the first depot agent or telegraph operator. I have been told the agent as perhaps Mr. Luke Cox from Owenton or Mr. J. E. Mountjoy from Warsaw. The first operator as far as I can learn was Mr. Letch Allsup. Other early operators were Mr. Jerry Constantine and Ben Wigginton. In those days there was only one operator and the office closed at night.
With the coming of trains and opportunities of travel, the folks who rode the trains were not the only ones who took advantage of the newly opened road. On foot, or by stolen rides in box cars, it seemed to the people who lived along the railroad that every type of mendicant reached their doors during the first few years of the railroad. The county children were often wakened by the more of less musical notes of the hand organ and hurrying downstairs would find the monkey at the door, holding our his cap for pennies. While his master grinning broadly ground out the tunes for him to dance to. This was wonderful, just as they heard of it in the city; however, as a good hearty breakfast for both man and monkey plus the pennies for his cap was the regular fee, the oft repeated performance grew tiresome in a few summer. Perhaps the start attraction was the Turks with the trained bears. Them men wore the baggy trousers and red pez and they made the poor tired bears dance and climb trees. They too, had to eat and when night overtook them they would ask permission to sleep in the barn with the bears. Several farmers found their horses and mules refusing to use the stalls for months after the bears, so they quit being so gracious about that. Sometimes there were whole families who had taken to the road or a lone old woman with a pack on her back. Though by far the greater number were just plain “tramps”, professionals, with the usual “please lady could you give a hungry man a cup of hot coffee” or a long story about the length of time since he had eaten and the hard luck that had started him on the road. The kind-hearted people unused to any except real need, and eager to do their Christian duty of feeding the hungry were a harvest to these people for years. Among these were some worthy cases and it would have been a tragedy to turn them down. The young musician who asked to play on the piano after he had eaten his supper and gave them such a concert as they had never heard, all in payment for one simple meal. The middle aged man, who could hardly speak English, and wanted to work for his breakfast. Several hours later he was found still working and explained he thought if he just worked on he might get his dinner too. After dinner he said if them liked his work perhaps he could get a job and earn the money to go on the train to the Western city he was trying to make. Of course he did, one of the farmers kept him several months and parted with him with real regret. Besides these beggars, there was every type of book agent, peddlers carrying heavy baskets of tinware or packs of table linen, dress goods and the heavy coarse lace for pillow cases and sheets that came to be known as “peddlers’ lace.” These peddlers were welcomed with their small walking stores, invited to dinner and when night overtook them, entertained overnight, paying a small amount from their wares too as a present to the lady of the house before leaving the next morning. I heard a lady say last fall she had seen her father bring into their home these utter strangers and she often wonders now how they escaped with their lives. It would have been so easy had they wanted to rob the house and murder the entire family and it might have been a week before any of the neighbors would have found them. The man could have been out of the United States by that time. Someone else said we had not developed a crime wave at that time even though we had been through a Civil War that all that means. They passed up and down day by day, a few Turks, Italians, Chinese, and one old Indian with his burrow, Mormon missionaries, book agents, confidence men peddlers. And the endless trek of tramps who ate out under the trees or on the porches handing their plates in for more food. Often if the weather was cold invited to eat by the fire—every chance in the world to rob or kill. Yet years had passed before enough incidents and piled up to make people afraid of tramps and try to discourage them from stopping at their doors. Surely the Lord did protect these people in their kindhearted innocence and seventy-five years has brought a change somewhere in our thinking ad morals. Think of farm home most of them at least a mile from the nearest neighbor, no telephones, often no road near except the railroad with five or six strangers a day at their door with every chance to rob and kill. They did destroy nearly every empty house, barn or shelter of any kind standing near the railroad and countless fence rails. Camping in these buildings, fires usually made of rails from nearby fences, they were careless about the fires and some nights toe families would wake up to find the buildings burning. Our family never lost a barn from their camping, but five small houses, two of them left form Shantytown and one corncrib paid for their carelessness. No wonder the people did grow threadbare and cross and were truly glad when the First World War brought an end to the professional Hobos.
By Sidney Rebecca "Rea" Gano (1889-1952). Section 1 of this is a reprint from the Owenton News Herald, March 23, 1950. The second part was published the following week. The News-Herald omitted a few paragraphs, as noted.