Ida Sparks Clarke Was One Of State's First Female Mayors

by Janis Rannow

She was one of the most famous women in the state when she died at the age of 65 in 1927, and Ida Sparks Clarke was buried appropriately in the Cokato Village Cemetery beneath an eight-ton Vermont granite memorial.

Sparks Clarke was, by only two weeks, the second female mayor in the state. She was appointed to that post in March 1921, after N. F. Johnson, owner of Johnson Produce Co., was elected but declined to serve. Earlier that month, Mary Siren had been elected mayor of Winton, a village near Ely.

In those days, Cokato city elections were conducted every year, and Sparks Clarke successfully ran for mayor in 1922.

She brought her own ideas into office with her. The late Cokato historian, Millard Ahlstrom, wrote in 1994 that Sparks Clarke, "a forerunner of the feminist movement," promoted the placing of public restrooms behind the old National Bank and brought a traveling library to town every other Saturday.

He remembered her as his next door neighbor, "chasing a snake onto our lawn and chopping it to pieces with a hatchet."

It was through her efforts that Cokato had a flag staff, quiet zone markers at the hospital and a waterworks system that operated on a paying basis.

Sparks Clarke’s most memorable accomplishment in office, however, was perhaps the installation of "silent policemen."

Made of poured concrete sunk beneath the frostline and topped with an electric light, surrounded with containers full of flowers maintained by the Women’s Civic Improvement League, the devices were designed to slow down the new-fangled automobile.

In a newsletter, Cokato Museum Director Mike Worcester wrote that cars were creating problems for the 1922 city leaders. "While city ordinances specified that all cars must keep to the right of center and six miles per hour was the maximum speed allowed while making a turn, close calls and fender-benders abounded," he wrote.

The devices stood in the middle of Cokato’s two busiest intersections, Third and Broadway and Third and Millard.

But in 1923, she lost her re-election bid-by only two votes-" in a contest rife with good old fashioned excitement and enthusiasm," according to the March 15, 19223 edition of the Cokato Enterprise, published by Sparks Clarke’s daughter, Maude Donahue.

The election brought a near-record 421 voters to the polling place. Dr. O. L. Peterson was declared the winner with 210 votes, topping the 208 votes cast for Sparks Clarke.

Considering the village population at the time was about 800 and only those age 21 and older were allowed to vote, historian Ahlstrom wondered if "the sick and infirm were brought on stretchers to the town hall voting place?"

A short time later, the "silent policemen" mysteriously disappeared from the streets. Accounts differ as to their final resting place, but Carlton Lee wrote in his book, "Cokato’s First Century," that the devices were disposed of at the bottom of Brooks Lake.

Ahlstrom wrote that "she maybe overreached" with the concrete barriers, "but perhaps Ida Sparks Clarke was defeated by some who resented her as a woman, a non-Scandinavian outsider."

Bouncing back from defeat in 1925, she was elected with 60 votes to the Cokato City Council after no one filed for office. She was the only woman to serve in that capacity until Nancy Kern in 1994.

Sparks Clarke’s list of accomplishments neither begins or ends with those two records and should perhaps be brought to light during this Women’s History Month, which is also the 150th anniversary of the Women’s Rights Movement.

Sparks Clarke’s was a woman before her time, a trailblazer who worked throughout her life for the equal rights of both men and women.

She was born in Emmeline, Iowa, in 1862, but her father, Jesse, died when she was nine months old. With baby Ida and three young boys, Eliza Sparks moved by steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Paul in 1864, moving to Trenton, Wisconsin, in 1865.

Sparks Clarke began teaching school there at the age of 15. In November, 1879, she married Joseph Clarke and they moved to Richland County, North Dakota, where they lived for 40 years.

She taught school for four years and become a charter member of the territorial Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She organized the first county WCTU and was the state organizer for two years.

For 19 years, she directed the Florence Crittenden Home. "For girls and women who suffer for the sins of men she had a great sympathy," the Rev. C. G. Tideman later wrote. "Girls and women shunned and despised, found in her a friend and defender" at the home.

Sparks Clarke was the state superintendent of fairs and open air meetings for 12 years.

She was North Dakota’s World’s Fair Commissioner for the St. Louis, Missouri, extravaganza and a charter member of that state’s Equal Suffrage Bazaar and Anti-Saloon League.

With her husband, Sparks Clarke moved to Cokato in 1919. In addition to serving as mayor and council member, Sparks Clarke helped the women of Cokato organize the Federated Club, serving as its president and a county officer. She was the first vice president of the Tenth District Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs and chair of that organization’s State Fair Committee.

A staunch republican, she organized Minnesota’s first Woman’s Republican Club.

She was stricken with a "hemorrhage of the head" in August, 1926, but rested a home until her recovery. On October 13, 1927, while still a member of the Cokato council, she addressed a group of club women at a Minnetonka League meeting, where she "suffered an internal hemorrhage, followed by a stroke of apoplexy. She never fully regained consciousness, laying in an unconscious condition all night," the newspaper reported.

Just prior to her death, Sparks Clarke was appointed by Secretary of State Herbert Hoover to chair the local "Better Homes in America" campaign to improve housing conditions and home life.

Rev. C. G. Tideman eulogized Sparks Clarke as an unselfish, devoted woman. "When there were few who favored, (not to say fought for) temperance, she was counted a pioneer," he said, going on to speak of her devotion to her family and her great calling.

"To her, life was a challenge…She died as she willed, at work, in the effort to give her last ounce of devotion to her beloved cause-American womanhood," the Rev. Tideman said.

Left to mourn Ida Sparks Clarke were her husband, three daughters, four grandchildren and a multitude of women-and men- whose lives she had so irrevocably changed.

This article first appeared in the March 24, 1998 issue of the Enterprise Dispatch.  Reprinted with permission.
©Cardan, Inc., 1998.