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An Evening With Mrs. J. Fred Sparke

(Editor’s note: This was submitted by the Island Trees School District in response to Susan Reckling’s request for more information about J. Fred Sparke, which printed in the Friday, Sept. 6 edition of the Levittown Tribune. This feature was written by Margaret Robben and printed in the September 1963 edition of The Sparke-ler.) 


On Sept. 3, 1963, the evening before the new school term opened, my husband I want to visit Mrs. J. Fred Sparke.


Since moving to Island Trees nearly five years ago, and having my children attend the school on Robin Place, I had often wondered who the man the school had been named for was.


Seamans Neck Road, the street on which the Sparke Family lives, was torn up and being repaved to make a wider and smoother road, and finding the house was difficult in the dark. After inquiring at various homes we finally pulled up to an old abandoned farmhouse (previous Sparks residence) and parked outside. To the right of the boarded-up building and half hidden behind numerous 50-year-old trees we found a beautifully constructed new colonial house all lighted up and friendly-looking. In the back courtyard we could see Mrs. J. Fred Sparke and her son, Edgar, through the small panes of a large window, waiting for us. They greeted us warmly, and after a few pleasantries, we settled back to listen to their stories of the “good old days.”

Mrs. Sparke arrived in America as Helen Graham on a sailing vessel when she was five-years-old. After a year in New York City, her family settled down in a home near where the Beau Sejour now stands. As a young girl there were many chores to do. Many mornings as she rushed to finish milking the family’s two cows, the school bell would ring. “That was the first bell,” she recalls, “and we had to be in class by the time they rang the second one.” She and her small brother would then run all the way to the little schoolhouse on Hicksville Road in the area of where Jolly Rogers now is. There were chores to do when she returned home, too, and when asked how much homework her teacher gave her in those days, she replied firmly and reminiscently, “too much.”

Going to that same school with little Helen Graham, was a young boy by the name of J. Fred Sparke. His family had lived in Island Trees ever since a “Count or Baron” Sparke had emigrated from Germany nearly 200 years before. Helen and Fred grew up together and eventually married in 1910. Like his father before him, Fred Sparke staked out his own farm site, extending from Seamans Neck Road to Wantagh Avenue, cultivating many crops, including 100 acres of potatoes, another 100 of both sweet and hard corn, green beans as well as flocks of ducks and chickens of every variety. His son Edgar, youngest of three children born to the Sparkes, remembers his father crouching down on all fours to put sunflower seeds “everywhere” as a special treat for the birds. “Pop could stick anything in the ground and make it grow,” Edgar recalls. Fred Sparke entered many of his crops in the Long Island Fair and once won “over $300 in prizes.” For entertainment, the Sparkes went to the social and square dances sponsored by the Grange League Farm Federation, made an occasional trip to Freeport for a movie, took the ferry in the summer from Bellmore to Zachs Bay for swimming and went horse-drawn sleigh-riding in the winter. But farming was Fred’s first love, and the soil returned his love with its abundance of fruits.


When his children were old enough to go to school, Fred Sparke’s interest in school affairs awakened. He started as collector of taxes in Island Trees, and soon became treasurer of the entire school district – a post he held for 43 years.


The total school budget in those days was about $1,500. The one and only elementary school was located on Hempstead Turnpike in the vicinity of Penn Fruit. Some of the original pine trees of the “island of trees” still stand near the telephone building in back of Henshaw’s Furniture store. The teacher’s salary at that time was $600 per year. She taught 20 pupils comprising all eight grades. Besides the watering of plants, washing of blackboards and giving out of paper, a few of the older children had the responsibility of keeping the fire alive in the pot-bellied stove which sat in the middle of the one-room schoolhouse.


J. Fred Sparke knew before his death on May 9, 1955, that the new elementary school being built on Robin Place and Condor Road would bear his name, but he did not live to see its dedication in the fall of that year.


We left that Sparke home at 11 o’clock, having had a lovely evening, but somehow I felt a resentment at seeing the new road again and all the new brick homes and the multitude of used-car and gasoline stations, where just farmland had been such a short time ago. In three hours spent with the Sparkes I had lived the past with them and experienced their love of the land and transition back to the suburban community their farmland had become was a little too abrupt. No horse-drawn sleighs would ever ride on Seamans Neck Road again, nor would a farmer ever again sit on his front porch watching his corn grow as high as an elephant’s eye. But the Sparkes had already adjusted to all that. And if they did, I could too.