Sparkses invest in Iola’s past, present
It was like finding a diamond.
As construction workers scraped decades of plaster from an interior wall upstairs at 15 E. Madison, a long-hidden architectural detail began to emerge: a huge brick archway in the center of the hallway.
“It’s just beautiful,” Cheryl Sparks said. “It’s a great place for people to stand and take a picture.”
“It was blocked in. You never knew it was there,” her husband, Terry, said.
The archway now beckons as a centerpiece of The Lofts, short-stay apartments in the upstairs of historic buildings on the south side of the square. It’s a project rooted in Iola’s history, dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nation’s largest downtown square and the enterprising families who settled in Iola in the late 1800s.
But for the Sparks family, their history in Iola dates back just 38 years. With roots perhaps considered still-shallow, the Sparkses are as committed to Iola’s future as those several generations deep by serving on community boards and investing in local business and renovation projects that will restore key parts of the city’s history and survive for decades to come.
For their efforts, Cheryl and Terry Sparks have been named town marshals for this weekend’s Farm-City Days parade.
THEIR STORY began at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. That’s where Cheryl, from Raytown, Mo., and Terry, from the St. Louis area, first met. They went to an outdoor movie on campus for their first date. A couple of years after graduation, they married.
Terry was an elementary education major, but after student teaching, decided maybe he didn’t want to be a teacher after all. Instead, he went into the insurance business. After more than three years selling life and health insurance in Kansas City, he followed a friend’s advice and became an agent with State Farm Insurance.
He and Cheryl moved to Iola in 1980 to run a State Farm office at 108 S. Jefferson, most recently the site of Around the Corner. It was just the two of them, along with an 8-month old daughter, Laura. Cheryl handled the business side of the business in a position that at the time was called “secretary.” In reality, she was more of an office manager, a position she’s more or less continued in some ways ever since, either full or part time.
“We learned the business together,” Cheryl said.
Their first staff member joined in 1981, just before the couple welcomed twin boys, Ryan and Shawn. The business soon moved to 109 S. Washington, where it would remain for the next 15 years. Another son, Eric, came along in 1988.
In 1995, State Farm moved to its current home at 15 W. Madison, a building that formerly housed a music store and then Fashion Crossroads. Since then, the building has been remodeled three times. Son Ryan joined the business in 2005. Staff now includes the three family members, plus Kyle Perry, Kyla Sutterby and Dena Daniels.
The agency has become one of the top performing State Farm offices in the nation, earning national ranking in the company in the Top 5 in the banking category and earning Chairman’s Circle designation for being in the top 3 percent overall for seven years.
The Sparkses are quick to give credit to others for those honors. They point to efforts by Ryan and Perry for “taking us to the next level” and the hard work of other staff members like Sutterby and Daniels.
“The only thing we want to brag about is the community,” Terry said. “The town and the area has been very good to us over the last 38 years. It was a great place for our kids to grow up.”
THEIR FIRST visit to Iola came just before the couple moved. They knew very little about the town beforehand.
“We were both skeptical, after living in the city and moving to a small town,” Cheryl said. “But our college was in a small town and I think that’s what we liked. We knew everybody on campus.”
Immediately, Terry was enthralled by the downtown square. “In other small towns, you don’t see this. The one thing we have unique in Iola is the square.”
It didn’t take long for the Sparkses to invest in downtown Iola. They bought 1 E. Madison, now the site of Ele Nails, and gradually began adding more commercial property over the years.
“At the time, I was one of a number of people concerned about the square. I kind of envisioned doing something upstairs,” Terry said.
A few years ago, Terry began a total renovation of the downtown properties he owned. Along the way, he made fascinating discoveries.
At the Ele Nails building, for example, he discovered the office area was a separate building not originally connected to the front of the building. Old maps show it was first green space, then stairs, then a separate building, then connected. A stone wall with two windows was uncovered when old paneling and Sheetrock were removed. The window cutouts have now become bookshelves, rather than recovered during the remodel.
“It just blew my mind,” Terry said.
Other discoveries included a skylight and ancient curtains, wallpaper and old pillars.
“We’re going back to the 1800s and early 1900s, and when you look up at the buildings and see the names of all these business people, you realize this was a pretty industrious, pretty ambitious group of people who built this town,” Terry said. “I hope we can have people today that will try to rekindle some of that fire and try to duplicate that in some way. That’s my dream.”
The Sparks family is doing its part to make that happen. They’re making final touches to four upstairs apartments at The Lofts at 15 E. Madison, with an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Each of the apartments honors those early businessmen, with units named after Josiah Colborn, a farmer whose land now comprises most of the square and whose wife, Iola, was the inspiration for the town’s name; L.L. Northrup, an early banker and businessman; A.W. Beck, an early visionary; James Wheeler who developed Portland Cement Company; Victoria “Granny” Cowden, one of the area’s earliest white settlers; George Bowlus, banker and father of Thomas H. Bowlus of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center; and H.L. Henderson, a businessman.
It’s been a costly endeavor, of course. Bringing historic stone and brick buildings up to modern codes is not an easy feat. The upstairs of the buildings had sat vacant for decades.
Terry quickly learned national retailers aren’t interested in downtown buildings. He wanted the buildings to support themselves and hasn’t used any tax incentives during the remodel process.
“The only way we’re going to keep this square intact is to get another source of revenue to pay for the upkeep of these buildings,” he said.
Renting the units through Airbnb is a better business model than renting on a long-term, monthly basis, Terry said. They can charge rates similar to a hotel stay, between $110 to $120 per night. Visiting professionals like to use the units for stays of six or nine months, Cheryl said.
The view, overlooking Iola’s square, draws visitors. The architectural details, with stone and brick walls, are mixed with modern amenities to honor the past while staying current.
“Terry’s done a lot of research,” Cheryl said. “He’s going to have pictures of the different stages of the buildings over the years.”
“We’re just very passionate about the square,” Terry said.
COMMERCIAL buildings are just one of the family’s passions, though. They also have remodeled several private residences for rental units, an endeavor their sons Ryan and Shawn have continued.
Their children are grown now, and married with children of their own. The family now includes 10 grandchildren, scattered from Iola to Kansas City to Oklahoma City. Both Cheryl and Terry enjoy spending time with their parents, who live in Overland Park and Kirksville, Mo.
They also manage a family farm in Kirksville, which has grown to about 1,000 acres.
Spending time with their family requires a great deal of time and travel, which is made easier by the success of State Farm. The office can survive without them for a week or so, they acknowledge. That gives them time to pursue other interests, especially visiting family.
The family also is very committed to their church, First Baptist. As he has done with his office and rental properties, Terry helped design and plan a remodel project for the church’s children’s area. They want to encourage young families to choose the church as their home, as they did when they first moved to Iola.
Their faith informs everything they do, Cheryl and Terry said. She serves as the church’s treasurer, while Terry is a deacon.
Terry also serves on the board of trustees of Allen County Regional Hospital.
“We’re very busy,” Cheryl said. “We started with State Farm, then the rentals just kind of developed as we could afford it. It’s been a gradual process but when you look at it over 38 years, it’s a lot.
“We’re just very blessed.”