Mothers were rough in ancient Sparta. They are reported to have told their young men as they went off to war, “Come back with your shield or on it.” American mothers are surely of a kinder and gentler strain. But among early Southerners there was obviously a high enough esteem for that fighting spartan spirit to name at least seven communities after the famed city.
- Sparta, Georgia
The neo-classical Burwell-Goss house in Sparta, Georgia, built in 1906 and still enjoyed as a private residence today
Not too far from Flannery O’Conner’s Milledgeville sits 222-year-old Sparta, Georgia, which was once at the center of the old-time Southern cotton production and still has some cotton-era architecture to show for it. Take for example William Terrell’s house built in 1820, with its floor-to-ceiling sash windows on the ground floor, and the Bird-Pierce-Campbell house built the following decade—Sparta is full of these monumental leftovers from its early days of affluence. And speaking of affluence, Sparta, Georgia, was home to the wealthiest African American woman in America at the time of her death in 1893. David Dickson, one of Georgia’s most innovative and successful planters, shocked respectable Southern society when he willed most of his estate to his biological daughter Amanda America Dickson—whose mother had been one of the Dickson family’s slaves.
- Sparta, Kentucky
Sparta, Kentucky, is home to the Kentucky Speedway (photo courtesy of Kentucky Speedway)
Midway between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, lies this tiny Sparta, population 230. If you’re there on race days, however, you might mistake it for a teeming metropolis: Sparta is home to the Kentucky Speedway, with its capacity seating of 100,000 and some of the best NASCAR racing in the country. The Speedway wasn’t the first show in these parts, however. Colorado Grant’s Wild West Show set up shop here in Sparta over a century before in 1907, with long-haired and red-bandanaed Colorado himself and his lovely wife, who could ride and shoot with the best of them. The horses were exceptionally talented as well: Keno the Palomino could pick the right card off a rack when a random number was called out by a member of the audience. Not even a super-duper, souped-up race car can pull that one off.
- Sparta, Mississippi
The real Sparta, Mississippi, has the real Sparta Opry, a musical destination for locals and out-of-towners from all over
Not too far from the Sweet Potato Capital of the World and just off the Natchez Trace Parkway is a great little spot to be on a Friday night—if you like catfish and old-time country music, that is. The Sparta Opry in Sparta, Mississippi (population 150), was started about twenty-five years ago when two or three locals started getting together to sing, pick, and eat—and now hundreds come from all over to enjoy the country, bluegrass, and gospel music dished up family-style and all for no charge (catfish, chicken, and biscuits excepted, of course). It’s all a far cry from that other “Sparta, Mississippi,” the entirely fictionalized setting for the 1967 movie (and later TV series) In the Heat of the Night—the original film was actually shot in Sparta, Illinois.
- Sparta, Tennessee
The Lester Flatt Memorial in downtown Sparta, Tennessee (photo by Brian Stansberry)
Country music must run in Spartan veins: Sparta, Tennessee, sports the moniker “Bluegrass USA.” And no surprise figuring out why—none other than guitar giant Lester Flatt called Sparta home, as well as fabled fiddler Benny Martin (who invented the eight-string fiddle, just in case you didn’t know). You can swim around in free bluegrass year-round in Sparta, where Lester Flatt has his own memorial downtown as well as a festival day. If that weren’t enough, Sparta and the surrounding White County purportedly have more caves, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks per square mile than any other spot in the country. Hike it, paddle it, bike it, and enjoy it—and then come back around for some jig-to-it bluegrass—all just a little over an hour east of Nashville.
- Sparta, Virginia
Salem Baptist Church in Sparta, Virginia. The portico was added to the original nineteenth-century structure in 1906. (Photo by Donna Betts)
Around the turn of the nineteenth century the “Great Revival” took Virginia by storm. Two Baptist congregations decided to hold “camp meetings” under an arbor near this little village of Sparta. After several summers of these outdoor revival meetings, in 1802 a church building with four walls (but still no ceiling) was constructed, and Salem Baptist Church sprang to life. For over a century, from 1820 to 1926, Pocahontas descendants Andrew Broaddus I, Andrew Broaddus II, and Andrew Broaddus III—father, son, and grandson—served the growing congregation as successive pastors.
In 1866, under Andrew II’s leadership, Salem spawned a new church: Jerusalem Baptist, just down the road. The pastor had invited the recently freed black members to remain and worship at Salem, but if they instead wanted to form their own church, they had the church’s blessing. Like their mother church, Jerusalem started by meeting under an arbor—and like their mother church, Jerusalem Baptist is still going strong today.
- Sparta, North Carolina
The Alleghany County Courthouse in Sparta, North Carolina, built in 1910 and restored in 1933 following a devastating fire downtown (photo by Brent Moore)
It wasn’t religious but literal fire that made such a difference to this beautiful little mountain Sparta in the northwest corner of North Carolina. The first conflagration started in January 1933 in Ray’s Lunch Room, later renamed Sparta Restaurant. It licked up a good bit of downtown—including much of the splendid 1910 county courthouse—before being brought under control (with the help of dynamite!). The city rebuilt, the county got the beautifully restored courthouse it still has today—and Sparta started its first fire department.
Fast forward fifty-three years almost to the day: on January 28, 1986, smoke was seen billowing from—yep, you guessed it—Sparta Restaurant. The fire destroyed only four businesses this time—having a fire department apparently helped. But the city took the opportunity to launch a downtown renewal program and made things that much better in this Mayberry-look-alike—and the Sparta Restaurant, by the way, is still very much in business.
- Spartanburg, South Carolina
Lovely downtown Spartanburg, South Carolina (photo by Bill Fitzgerald)
It would be hard to find a much more historically significant place on the American map than the area around Spartanburg, South Carolina. The old-world Spartans are best known for their devil-take-care military exploits, and the New World warriors for whom Spartanburg was named deserve such glory as well. It was near here at the Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens that the tide of the American Revolution turned and swelled to such an extent as to see it through to ultimate victory at Yorktown several months later. The Spartanburg Regional History Museum at the Chapman Cultural Center downtown will tell you all about it—and far more. But Spartanburg is not just history—the bustling city is home to big-time international industry, including the only BMW manufacturing plant this side of the Atlantic. Apparently Southern Spartans have cars running in their veins as well.
SEE ALL “FROM ATHENS TO ZEPHYR: PART TWO” PHOTOS HERE