Sunday, December 26, 2010

Elmer R. "Dick" Sparrow, 1929-2010: Zearing farmer hitched up 40-horse team


Elmer R. "Dick" Sparrow, a Zearing farmer who in the 1970s revived the spectacle of driving a team of 40 horses, died Thursday. His family said the cause of death was leukemia. He was 81.

Sparrow rose to national fame in 1972 when he hitched and drove 40 Belgian draft horses in the Fourth of July Schlitz Circus Parade in Milwaukee. More than a million people watched Sparrow's feat of strength and manual dexterity in Milwaukee, with more watching on television.

A repeat performance in Zearing on Labor Day that year - with Gov. Robert Ray beside Sparrow in the driver's seat - drew 50,000 to the Story County town of about 500.

"The first time I took the lines in my hands I never felt anything so awesome in my life," Sparrow told the Chicago Tribune in 1972. "It's a little like holding back a locomotive under a full head of steam with me at the throttle."

Sparrow was born and raised on a Zearing farm where horses had been raised since 1872.

One of three children, he learned how to lead horses through farm gates at age 3 and by age 4 could ride the farm's Percherons by himself.

After graduating from Zearing High School, Sparrow attended Iowa State College, majoring in farm operations. He married Joy Beggs, an Illinois farm girl, in 1950, and they had two sons and three daughters.

The Sparrows began raising the 2,000-pound chestnut brown Belgian draft horses in the late 1950s. They offered hayrack rides and bobsled tours to Iowa State students in the 1960s and '70s.

In 1972, Schlitz Brewing Co. asked Sparrow to bring a six- or eight-horse hitch to Milwaukee. Sparrow decided to go bigger and took a 12-horse hitch.

Sparrow saw photographs of 40-horse hitches used to move circuses into towns - and drive up local interest in the show. Sparrow decided to revive the tradition that had last been attempted by Barnum & Bailey Circus Co. in 1904.

"We basically had to reinvent the wheel," said Paul Sparrow, Dick Sparrow's eldest son, who was 17 when his father began assembling the team. "Nobody alive knew how to do what we were doing at that time."

The 40-horse hitch stretched 110 feet from Sparrow's fists to the front horses, Paul Sparrow said. The team stood four abreast in 10 rows and pulled a 12-foot-tall, 4-ton wagon built in 1920 to haul the big top for Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.

Sparrow dazzled crowds by halting his 40-horse team and making the horses back up. Turning corners required split-second timing and expert maneuvering.

"When you got on top the wagon and behind all those horses, it went on forever," Paul Sparrow said. "When you made a turn, you lost sight of the lead horses."

Dick Sparrow used 10 leather lines - five in each hand - to steer more than 40 tons of horseflesh, roughly twice the weight of an empty 60-seat New York City transit bus.

In 1976, Sparrow twice expanded to 48 horses - once at the Iowa State Fair and again at the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas. The feats earned him a notation in Guinness World Records.

A Parkersburg seed corn company dropped its sponsorship of the team in 1977, and Sparrow sold the team and equipment at auction for about $100,000.

Sparrow remained active in the horse industry until failing health forced him into partial retirement in recent years, his son said.

Sparrow is survived by his wife, Joy, a sister, five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at Dakins Community Center in Zearing with burial at the Zearing Cemetery. Friends may call from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday.