NEAR BELTON LAKE — On a hillside in the rolling cedar forest, sparrows swooped down to Cowhouse Creek scooping up mud and twigs in their bills, then returned to the white bluffs that towered almost 200 feet to build nests in the rocky cliffs. Below in the valley, in the small community of Sparta, trucks filled with families and their possessions drove down dirt roads leaving behind empty farms, fields and their way of life.
The need for a dam in Central Texas on the Leon River was obvious. Past flooding claimed lives, and more water was needed for the growing area. The Belton Reservoir project was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1946 making it mandatory for all people, including the deceased, to be relocated in order to create Belton Lake, according to Park Ranger Mike McCarley and accounts published in “The Rise and Fall of Sparta” by J.J. Bishop (a Sparta resident) and “Tennessee Valley Texas 1851-1951” by Ann Joseph.
Sparta was founded in the 1850s along Cowhouse Creek, nine miles northwest of Belton. The area was named Tennessee Valley by early settlers from Tennessee. A mill was built in Sparta in the late 1860s, and a post office opened in 1873.
G.W. Walton, one of Sparta’s prominent citizens, suggested the town’s name. By 1890, Sparta had a general store, a blacksmith shop and a church. The school had 52 pupils and one teacher in 1903. The post office closed in 1920, and fires destroyed the cotton gin and a gristmill in 1921. The onset of the Great Depression chased away people. At its peak in 1933, fewer than 100 called Sparta home. By the time the dam project started in the late 1940s, only 50 people remained, records show.
The Leon River flooded the valley frequently, with disastrous floods occurring seven times between 1899 and 1941. Farmers barely had time to dry out and replant before they got washed away again. The water rose so high once, it covered the Sparta Bridge, closing school for one week.
Still, the “hard rock” Sparta people were tied to the land and to each other, according to historical accounts and oral histories stored at the Bell County Museum. But as the water returned, destroying crops and occasionally taking a life. The need for a permanent solution couldn’t be ignored.
The Army Corps of Engineers served as the real estate agents in the 1940s and ’50s. Sparta residents received a pamphlet outlining the need for flood control. The Corps did appraisals and offered people a price including any improvements to move their home, if the owner wished. A contractor was paid to either relocate a house or destroy it. All 15 cemeteries in the valley, containing about 1,150 graves, were relocated.
By 1954, a century after it was settled, all Sparta residents were moved out.
Longtime resident Ernestine Humphrey described the feeling of leaving Sparta. “It was like laying down and letting water cover you up; it was a live burial.”