The Southern Illinois City, originally known as “Columbus,” when incorporated in 1837, adopted Sparta in 1839. When the first settlers came to the area in about 1812, they found almost three-quarters of the land was covered with timber, and the remainder was a rich prairie. Early settlers came to Southern Illinois through South Carolina, and these immigrants were of Scottish and Irish heritage. By 1859, the city had grown immensely, boasting three churches, 10 dry goods stores, three schools and several industries. At this time, the town was officially incorporated by a special act of the state legislature, and it was then incorporated under the State of Illinois General Law in 1873.
Sparta had connections to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. The Burlingame House still stands in the small rural community of Eden just outside of Sparta. It is a towering two-story brick home in dire need of repair and restoration. Slaves fleeing for freedom were hidden there and later transported to the next stop on the “Underground Railroad.” This was accomplished by the delivery of farm equipment by Mr. Burlingame. A bit further north, another home owned by Mr. William Hayes offered the same protection to slaves seeking freedom. However, in 1844, Mr. Hayes was tried and found guilty of transporting four slaves northward. Today, the Hayes home is still occupied by members of the Hayes family.
In 1930, two young Sparta men broke the world aircraft endurance record of 427 hours. The Hunter Brothers, John and Kenneth (Kenneth only 16 years old), flew the plane “The City of Chicago,” and their brothers Albert and Walter flew a support plane called “Big Ben.” Fuel, home-cooked meals, and laundry was lowered into the “Chicago.” After the historic flight, the brothers could procure distribution of the Midwest airmail route, which they hoped would be the basis for a future airline. Three of the brothers lost their lives in tragic accidents. John lost his life at 29 while “cat-walking” over Rosedale, Missouri, and fell into the whirling airplane prop. Albert died when he fell off the roof of a barn. Kenneth was killed in a weather-related flying accident in 1975. Walter Hunter left the airmail company and became a pilot for American Airlines. Today, the Sparta airport, or Hunter Field, is the base for emergency medical helicopters, air cargo and crop dusting services.
Hollywood came to Sparta in the mid-1960s. The producers of the film “In The Heat Of The Night” found Sparta to represent the small Mississippi town portrayed in the movie. Rod Steiger and Sydney Poitier were the main stars of the crime mystery. Several old businesses and homes were used during the filming. Later, a TV series was formatted after the movie.
Today, you can drive down South St. Louis Street and West Third and see several of the city’s oldest homes. The historic area is known as Bricktown.
The Old G. M. & O. Depot is also located on Second Street, now the home of the Misselhorn Art Gallery. The depot features the work of the late Roscoe Misselhorn, gifts, books and prints for railroad buffs, and “In The Heat Of The Night” fans.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.