Living in Jackson

The Benefactor

August 21, 2020

If you have lived in Jackson County you must have witnessed Fourth of July fireworks erupting over the Cascades. Or maybe you listened to the Jackson Symphony Orchestra’s summer concert seated at the base of the falls. Or perhaps you were up early to watch the hot air balloons liftoff, or the Civil War battles reenacted, or you tobogganed the hill beside the waterfalls in the Spark’s Foundation park. Because people enjoy the park’s walking trails, water park, ski slope, and manicured picnic grounds, it’s easy to take it for granted, and to think all this beauty has always been here. Well, it hasn’t.

It took a big heart and some creative thinking during the 10 years of the great depression, 1929 to 1941, and a considerable portion of the personal fortune of Matilda and William “Cap” Sparks to produce this gift to the people of Jackson. When the markets crashed in 1929, one out of every fifteen workers in Jackson was employed by the Sparks-Withington Company. Cap Sparks hired hundreds of unemployed men to drain the 465-acre swamp, located at the time just outside the city limits. They developed the land into a recreation area for Jackson workers and their families. The park included canals, bridges, a golf course, and a manor house. But the crowning achievement was the Cascades, a 600-foot-long illuminated waterfall built on the side of a man-made hill. The colored lighting was linked the music that could be heard from blocks beyond the park. It was said that neighborhood children playing in the park knew when the music stopped and the colored lights went out, it was time to go home. The Cascades opened in 1932.

Cap Sparks didn’t stop there. He was a 3-term mayor of Jackson. He sponsored and led the Jackson American Legion Zouaves, a unique fast stepping (300 steps per minute) marching group featured in 1954 on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show” – the same stage from which the Beatles were launched. The Zouaves marched in parades for Presidents Eisenhauer and Kennedy and performed in the capitals of Europe.

Cap Sparks built his fortune through creative thinking. Starting as a bookkeeper in a grocery store, he was hired away by the Withington brothers who later made their offices in what is now the Commercial Exchange building. In no time he became a full partner in the Sparks-Withington Company.

Sparks-Withington became a major supplier to the Ford Motor Company. His factory produced radiator cooling fan assemblies in 1909 and the first all-electric car horn in 1913. By 1920 Sparton horns were featured in 42 makes of automobiles. In 1932 they built an electric refrigerator which flopped in the market. That can happen in any business. By 1939 Sparks-Withington had five factory locations in Jackson. They produced Sparton radios of such quality and style you can see them in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. They made what we now call turntables for playing 33 RPM vinyl discs. The first black and white televisions were made in the building, and in 1939 color TVs were introduced by Cap Spark’s company in Jackson

In February, 2020, the great-grandson of Cap and Matilda Sparks came back to build his own business in the ship his great grandfather launched. He writes computer programs and develops prototypes of underwater robots. “I’m hoping some of my great-grandfather’s pulsating energy left in these walls translates into my office, workspace and current projects,” Josh Sparks Nichols told me.

Author: Laurice LaZebnik