Building a Better J-Town
A Look Back at E.R. Sprowl’s Impact on the Community
Writer / Beth Wilder, Director
Jeffersontown Historical Museum
Until the advent of the Bluegrass Research and Industrial Park in the 1960s, Jeffersontown was often referred to as “a sleepy little town.” That may have been true to a large extent, as the populace of what was then primarily a rural farm-based community was content to quietly live their lives in the beautiful area in which most of them were blessed to have been born and raised. Their ancestors settled this region because of the exceptional quality of the land and the purity of the water. They were happy to merely work their farms and enjoy the peaceful life Jeffersontown afforded them. But that image discounts the efforts of a handful of men in the early 1900s who were determined to put Jeffersontown on the map – none of these more so than Edwin Ruth Sprowl.
E.R. Sprowl was the son of Mary Ruthann Vance and Dr. Robert Vance Sprowl. Mary Ruthann was the granddaughter of James E. Vance, a Presbyterian minister who voluntarily preached once a month at the old Union Church in Jeffersontown. Her husband, Robert Vance Sprowl, was a cousin who practiced medicine in Middletown from 1844-1869, before moving to Jeffersontown to continue his medical practice until 1876. Their son Edwin Ruth, born in 1859, would grow up to be one of the most fervent supporters ever to live in Jeffersontown.
E.R., or Ed, as he was sometimes referred to by friends, was quite an entrepreneur. He began his career as a traveling insurance salesman and came to know Jeffersontown like the back of his hand. It was through his door-to-door travels selling insurance that he met his first wife, Sarah (Sadie) Owings, when she was just 14 years old. He immediately fell in love with her, but waited for her to grow up. They married in 1889, when Sadie was 23 years old.
Sadly, Sadie died later that same year, 17 days after giving birth to their daughter. Ethel. E.R. was heartbroken – residents watched almost daily for years, as E.R. threw himself, sobbing, over Sadie’s tombstone in the Jeffersontown Cemetery. He continued to care for their daughter, and the two eventually moved into the apartment over Wells’ Drugstore, which was located where El Nopal now stands. Ethel was a handful – patrons watched one day as the eggs she threw against the wall of the apartment slowly seeped down into the drugstore. E.R. had to earn a living, so he enlisted the help of his sister-in-law, Loulie, to care for Ethel.
Unfortunately, both Loulie and Ethel contracted brain fever (bacterial meningitis) shortly thereafter. Ethel recovered, Loulie did not. Since E.R. still needed assistance with his young daughter, he enlisted the help of a family friend, Eva (Nin) Beach, who became like a member of the family.
Sprowl eventually remarried, this time to a young woman who lived across the street from him at 10201 Taylorsville Road, where the Blankenship Dance Company was located for many years. Wilella Buchanan provided E.R. with two sons – Theodore Shaw and Edwin Vance, who often appeared in advertising promotions published by their father.
Which brings us back to the incredible amount of “boosting” Sprowl did for the city. Because he had traversed the town so extensively, E.R. understood all the facets that gave Jeffersontown so much potential. He eventually became a realtor and auctioneer, and in 1908, he published a booklet titled, “Jeffersontown, Ky.: The Coming Suburb,” which promoted every aspect of the area, encouraging people to lay down roots here and create a “delightful suburban hometown of considerable size.”
His efforts proved quite fruitful. He was a member of the Jefferson Heights Land Company, which oversaw not only the creation of the Jefferson Heights subdivision off Taylorsville Road near the town square, but also the creation of the new graded school in 1914 that was located where Tully Elementary now stands. Sprowl took the lead in urging the community to come together to fund the new school, “to help educate the children of those less fortunate, and thereby make this the ideal community he has always desired it to be.” He donated his half interest in the five acres where the new school would be located, as well as much of his own money toward the building of the school itself.
Sprowl was president of the Commercial Club – a forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce – and he vigorously promoted Jeffersontown by encouraging the creation of new businesses, often taking part in their formation himself. According to a 1910 Jeffersonian article on “Well Known Citizens of Jefferson County,” Sprowl was described as “a man who has done more to advance the interests of Jeffersontown and the surrounding country than any five men,” and that he was instrumental in the founding of subdivisions and several businesses about town, including the Jeffersontown Creamery and the Jefferson County Bank.
All his efforts did not come without a price, however. Sprowl never believed in “taking life easy,” and in 1907, he suffered from nervous prostration. By 1908, he was bemoaning the fact that the town government and the citizens refused to “exercise a little push and energy” to build in an up-to-date fashion, repair in a first-class manner, clean up the streets and invite good people to settle in the town. He had every intention of leaving Jeffersontown in 1908, stating that “having done all in his power to advance your interests, I very naturally want to see the work I have started obtain the desired results. I have spent a great deal of time and money to bring this about. You have reaped the benefits of my expenditure. I am not leaving you because I do not love my hosts of friends here, but because I feel that I can do better elsewhere.”
Fortunately for Jeffersontown, E.R. Sprowl changed his mind about leaving the town he loved, and he remained until his death in 1924. His obituary noted him as a man imbued with a “spirit of helpfulness and generosity, his almost inexhaustible supply of energy was spent and his talent exercised, not to net himself a large income or build up a personal wealth of material riches. His goal was one for common good and community betterment. Success to him meant the accomplishment of those things which brought progress and prosperity to the community in which he lived.”
It went on further to state that “his name will live as a memory to Jeffersontown and her future citizenship and serve, we trust, as an inspiration to carry on and build upon foundations which he laid, according to the vision he had for a bigger and better Jeffersontown. Nobody has done more for this town than Ed. Sprowl.”