NANCY ELNORA (KNIGHT) SPARKS (1857 – 1947)
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At a glance:
Born: Sept 1857 (TX)*
Nancy Sparks was Nevada’s First Lady from 1903 until Governor Sparks’ death during his second term in office in 1908. Nancy was known for her gracious hospitality in hosting groups at the Alamo Ranch in south Reno and at her parlors in the Arlington Hotel in Carson City. The Governor’s Mansion was completed soon after the death of Governor Sparks. This made Nancy Sparks the last First Lady to reside in her own home during her husband’s term in office.
Nancy was born in Williamson County, Texas, the only child of Dr. David Fortner Knight and Nancy McNutt Allen Knight. She had an older half-sister Rachel A. Knight on her father’s side and several older half-brothers and sisters on her mother’s side. John Sparks had been married to Nancy’s half-sister Rachel Knight, who died in 1878. From this union two daughters, Maude and Rachel, were born. Baby Rachel died in 1881 after John Sparks’s marriage to Nancy Knight.
Married in 1879, they had four children, sons Deal, Benton, Charles and Leland, all of whom were born in Georgetown, Williamson County, Texas. Nancy and John Sparks moved to their showplace Alamo ranch in south Reno in 1888 and lived there during John Sparks’ term as governor. The Governor commuted between Reno and Carson City on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The city of Sparks was named after him in the early 1900’s.
Their residence, the Alamo ranch, was known for its furniture, art, and herds of buffalo and elk. It boasted a “plunge bath sixteen feet square and seven feet in depth, cemented and very neat.” A two-story bath house and laundry were built over the plunge bath and hot water was available in every room of the house. The ranch consisted of 320 acres, herds of Hereford cattle, and acres planted in alfalfa which was used to feed the livestock. A renowned Western cattle baron, John Sparks was a southern-born veteran of the Confederate Army.
Articles in the local newspapers recounted the lavish barbecues held at the ranch, one with five hundred guests and a brass band for entertainment. The Nevada legislature traveled from Carson City to the Alamo ranch in March 1907. They also entertained President Theodore Roosevelt during Sparks’ first term as governor. James Young in his book, Cattle in the Cold Desert, states that: “Elnora Sparks, John Sparks’ second wife, helped him build his Nevada empire.” They owned cattle ranches in Texas, Wyoming, and Nevada. In the early 1900’s John owned a silver mine near Reno.
Sam Davis, a Carson City journalist, in an article in Sunset Magazine in 1903, said that, “There is only one person in Nevada just now more popular than Governor Sparks and that is the Governor’s wife.” Mr. Davis went on to tell of a dance to celebrate the opening of a mine that was attended by Mrs. Sparks and friends. Mrs. Sparks told the miners that she did not intend to be a “wall flower” and wanted to dance with every miner. The dance ended at 3:30 a.m. after every miner had danced with her. After that dance, miners often referred to Mrs. Sparks as the “perfect little brick.” Another example of her exceptional hospitality was when a group of Reno High School students, in March, 1903, were met at the train station in Carson City by Mrs. Sparks and invited to an informal reception where cake and ice cream were served to students and teachers at the Arlington Hotel. The students voted Mrs. Sparks as being “just right.”
In 1904 Mrs. Sparks responded to a request to provide aid to the orphans and disabled children of Chicago to provide them with toys at Christmas. After giving much to the children, she helped to make Christmas a happy one for the orphaned and disabled children of Nevada as well. An article in the Nevada State Journal on November 27, 1904, stated that “her heart is in the cause and in her womanly way will help to make the coming Christmas a happy one for the waifs of Chicago as well as the needy of Nevada.”
An editorial in the Reno Evening Gazette on September 26, 1905 tells of the insult given to “one of the loveliest women in Nevada, Mrs. John Sparks” by Senator Newlands at the opening of the Newlands project. Mrs. Sparks and a friend had ordered a carriage to take them from the train to the ceremonies marking the opening. Senator Newlands and his wife “proclaimed rudely that he and Mrs. Newlands would use it” sending Mrs. Sparks and friend back to the train to miss the ceremonies.
After John Sparks died in office on May 22, 1908, Lt. Governor Denver Dickerson became Governor. Nancy Sparks with son Benton were named as executors of the will. Governor Sparks’ will stated that the “oldest child in the family, he or she, should be single at the time of the father’s death, should act as executor of the will.” Maud Sparks Mackenzie, the oldest child, was married, requiring Nancy to file a petition to request that her son Benton be appointed to assist Mrs. Sparks as executor. The petition stated that the estate was valued at $100,000 with property in Texas and Nevada. Soon after the death of Gov. Sparks, the properties in Texas and Nevada were sold. An agreement with the purchasers of the Alamo Ranch, Farmers and Merchants Bank in Reno, and Benton and Nancy Sparks, allowed them to continue their residence at that property. Senate Bill 75, introduced into the Nevada Legislature by Alfred W. Holmes of Washoe County in 1909, asked that the balance of salary for the unfulfilled term of Governor Sparks be paid to Mrs. Nancy Eleanor (sic) Sparks. One of the reasons for the bill was stated as “Whereas, The said John Sparks invested his fortune in beneficial enterprises which were expected to aid in the upbuilding of the community and the development of its latent wealth but which failed of realization …” The bill was passed and became law on March 31, 1909 without the signature of Governor Dickerson. Nancy Sparks was paid $10,430.15.
Nancy moved to Alameda, California, soon after the death of her husband and lived there until her death in San Francisco on July 5, 1947. Nancy was survived by sons Benton and Leland and step-daughter (and niece) Maud Mackenzie. Nancy was buried in the Sparks’ plot in the Masonic Cemetery in Reno as are sons Benton and Charles, daughter-in-law Ada, and grandson Benton.
*Nancy Sparks death certificate gives her birth date as September 27, 1857. The book, Williamson County, Texas: Its History and Its People, by Jean Shroyer and Hazel Hood give the death of Nancy’s mother Nancy McNutt Allen Knight as November 31, 1855, in Williamson County, Texas.
Researched and written by Joyce M. Cox. Edited by Kay Sanders.