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Circus Owner Charles Sparks

Charles McGee Sparks

Introductory Brief History of Sparks Family and Title
By Bandwagon staff and Richard Conover. Bandwagon, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Nov-Dec), 1964, pp. 4-5.

The fascinating story of the Sparks Circus begins with the birth of John H. Wiseman in Pennsylvania in 1863. He began operating a small novelty show out of East Brady, Pa. in the early 1880's and during his travels found a young orphan boy by name of Charles Sparks whom he adopted. Charles was born in Park City, Utah about 1880. A few years later Wiseman opened an Uncle Tom Cabin Show that traveled by wagons and employed young Charles as a dancer. In 1889 according to the Sturtevant archives Wiseman framed his first circus, a small wagon show, which used the title of Sparks Bros. An advertisement in the Aug. 3, 1889 Clipper wanted a boss canvasman for a 70 ft. top, 16 horse overland show. The ad was signed Sparks UTC Co. Perhaps this show in 1889 was a combination novelty and circus outfit. Wiseman used the name of Sparks on all of his future show operations and in fact legally changed his own name to John H. Sparks. Young Charles from the beginning was actively associated with his step father in the circus.

For the 1890 through 1892 seasons the show was known as Sparks and Allen and was a medium sized wagon circus. There is mention in the May 21, 1892 Clipper of an "Oriental R. R. Circus" with John Sparks, proprietor, but just what that show consisted of is not known as further details are missing. Details of early Sparks circus activities are somewhat sketchy until the mid 90's. The Dec. 17, 1892 Clipper reported that George S. Cole had purchased one-half interest in the Sparks and Allen Circus.

For 1893 the show was known as Cole Colossal Circus and the Clipper listed George S. Cole and John Sparks sole owners. Further details said the show had 60 head of stock, 3 advance wagons, a 20 ft. round sideshow top and a 120 ft. round with one 50 middle big top. Charles Sparks was working educated ponies in the performance.

In 1894 Sparks began using the name of John H. Sparks Shows and continued to do so until about 1916 when the title was shortened to Sparks Circus.

In 1900 the show was converted to a 3 car railroad show. Photos of the 1902 train picture one flat car, one coach, and one large tunnel car. During the early 1900's the show was using the title of John H. Sparks Old Virginia Shows.

John H. Sparks died Jan. 29, 1903 and Charles took over the active management of the show. John H. Sparks' son, Clifton. was also associated with the show and as he became older took on greater responsibilities in the management.

The small rail show grew not spectacularly but slowly and surely. It was operated in a businesslike manner and adopted the Ringling's established policy of no grift and soon became known as the primary "Sunday School Show" in the land. No showman in the history of American circusdom enjoyed a finer reputation than Charlie Sparks. He operated a clean show that was fair to both the public and it's employees. Charles later married one of John H. Sparks' sisters and his wife, the beloved "Miss Addy" became his foremost partner in all of his circus operations. The stories told about this fine and gentle person are legion among old troupers. She was always present at the door of the cookhouse at mealtimes. Many a canvas or prop man was told by her to first go wash his face and comb his hair before entering the cookhouse, but once in, no one ever went away hungry. Likewise every man was paid his due wages in full and on time and there is no record at any time of any incivility on the management's part toward either employees or the public. Sparks ran that kind of show.

One train list for the show in the early 1900's have it increased to 5 cars, using 1 coach, 2 flats, 1 stock, and 1 tunnel car (baggage and cages). In 1909 the show was up to 7 cars and increased to 10 for the 1910 season. In 1915 it was on 11 cars and for the 1916 season the train was increased to 15 cars and the show became a major contender in the medium sized railroad show field.

The show during the years had wintered at Carthage, Ohio, Salisbury, N. C. and then took up permanent quarters for many years at Central City Park in Macon, Georgia beginning in the winter of 1918-19.

The show was enlarged to 20 cars for the 1923 season and remained on that number as long as Sparks owned the show.

Sparks was a great believer in the value of the street parade and kept the march as long as he was in command. In the period around 1915 the show often played in the middle west but rarely went west of the Mississippi but gradually the show played more and more Eastern territory. Beginning in 1919 the show nearly always made the provinces of Eastern Canada.

The season of 1928 was the last one the show was operated by Charles and Clifton Sparks. Following the season they sold the show to H. B. Gentry, who proved to be only an agent for the American Circus Corporation. Tradition has it that Sparks had said many times he would never let his show get into the hands of that outfit and he was very much upset over the turn of events.

H. B. Gentry managed the show for the new owners in 1929 with the show remaining the same size and the street parade retained. In September of 1929 the Sparks show along with the other American Circus Corporation properties was sold to John Ringling.

For the 1930 season the show remained on the same number of cars but the parade was dropped. Ira M. Watts was named to manage the show for the 1930 and 1931 seasons. Following the 1930 season the show abandoned the quarters in Macon and went to winter at Sarasota with Ringling-Barnum.

In 1931 the show was cut to 15 cars and the band was replaced by "canned" music in an economy move for that great depression year. Although the show made a long season the loses suffered by all the Ringling owned shows was very heavy. It was decided to shelve the show and it never went out again. Some animals were sent to join the shows at Peru quarters and the 9 elephants were absorbed into the Ringling-Barnum herd. The Sparks wagons remained in the graveyard at Sarasota man years but were finally burned about 1940.

The Sparks title lay dormant until it appeared again in 1946 as the following article will relate.

Charles Sparks purchased the Downie Bros. motorized circus from Andrew Downie in mid-season 1930 and operated it through the 1938 season. He then retired, coming out briefly in the summer of 1943 to manage the Ringling owned Spangles Circus in Madison Square Garden. He then lived in Macon until his death in 1944. Clifton is still living in Pennsylvania. (Prepared by Bandwagon Staff with aid from Richard Conover).

Charles Sparks 3
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Charles Sparks with Bert Cole (Left)
Charles and Addie Sparks
Charles and Addie Sparks
Sparks Circus Poster
Charles Sparks
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Charles Sparks and family
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Charles Sparks and family
(Charles right holding hat)
Charles Sparks 4
Charles Sparks on right


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