Very often, a story snooper stumbles upon the fragments of a person’s life that suggest a much deeper story that needs to be told. Yet the search for more information is too often fruitless and the story, at best, elusive.
Many have genealogy charts that trace their ancestors back centuries, as well as some memories and stories of their parents or grandparents. But even then, they know little about those who came before them.
Our lives are often like footprints in the snow. They disappear with the change of season.
So it’s with Wesley Richard Sparks.
Wesley was a shoemaker in Jacksonville until his death on September 26, 1923. He and his wife, Katherina “Katie” Schwagler, came from Pasadena, California in 1906. Richard was 55 and Katie was 38. They had been married for 14 years and had three children, one of them on the way.
Katie was born in Germany on October 26, 1868, and emigrated to the United States in 1885. Learning English while working as a housekeeper for a Washington, D.C. family, she and Wesley somehow met and married, but that part of the story never survived.
Wesley was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and at the time he met Katie was likely living in Leonardtown, Maryland, about 80 miles south of Washington. The married couple lived there in 1900 before leaving for California.
Wesley was discharged from the U.S. Army in July 1883. It is not known how long he had served in the 9th U.S. Infantry, but he was still a soldier and listed as an invalid on his official papers.
The 9th Infantry was involved in most of the Indian Wars of the late 19th century and was almost always on the move in the American West. Wesley could have been in the unit as early as 1874, when the 9th was sent to Wyoming, and Wesley’s life changed forever.
While patrolling the plains and mountains of Wyoming, soldiers frequently had to hunt for meat. Often that meant braving a harsh winter in the middle of a snowstorm.
One day Wesley and a friend were ordered to hunt. Suddenly, they were lost in a violent blizzard that seemed to come out of nowhere. As they tried to find their way back to camp, their socks were soaked in freezing water. Wesley later said their biggest mistake that day was taking off their boots to wring out their socks. As he writhed, icicles were already forming.
Somehow they found their way back, where surgeons removed parts of their feet, from the instep. As the soldiers recovered in a cold cabin, the officers thought Wesley was dying and ordered a grave to be dug. But Wesley survived.
The Army sent him to school for special training, possibly near Washington, D.C. There he learned to make shoes and boots, a profession he continued until the day he died .
The family’s home in Jacksonville was in the hills, less than a mile south of downtown. They first lived in a tent, where Katie’s last child, a girl, was born. Soon there was a small cabin and some outbuildings on the hilly slopes. Twelve years later, they settled in town.
Beyond a few hints of shoe repair store locations, Wesley and Katie never made the papers and lived a quiet life.
In 2006, the Sparks property on South Third Street, just north of Sterling Street in Jacksonville, was purchased, became part of Jacksonville Woodland Parks, and named Woods Grove.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “Silent City on the Hill, Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery.” Contact him at [email protected]