• Marie Hickman

Spark Plug Comes to Athens

By Anne Adams

We often see costumed mascot figures today either in person or in the media and know they’re usually characters from advertising campaigns,  movies or TV, comic books, and especially sports teams.  But in the past when these figures were not so common there was one who appeared at the East Texas Cotton Palace and International Corn Show.  This, of course, was Spark Plug – the comic racehorse from the popular Barney Google comic strip.

The Cotton Palace, a sort of county fair, was an Athens institution for some years and like at a fair today there were numerous competitions, judging of agricultural products as well as celebrity appearances as well as entertainment. So in 1924 as it ran from September 29 to October 4 the Athens Review article described the appearance by Spark Plug and the reporter took on a folksy tone.

At the race track “…....special arrangements have been made for the best known and fastest racehorse in the world. His name is ‘Spark Plug’ known by every child and adult from the remotest regions of the earth.”

The reporter continued: “Yes, Siree. Barney Google’s coming to the Fair at Athens, whoopee! So let’s celebrate, he says, and forget our troubles! Children and grown folks alike are to laugh and get fat and live ten years longer.” 

The character was set to appear on only one night and the reporter emphasized an important part of his appearance: the blanket emblazoned with his name. So what was he to do? “He will run for you and pull some of his stunts right before your eyes while you sit in the grandstand.”

There was more detail: “…he will be outlined in many colors of fire to emphasize his fiery disposition on the race track.” Then came another reassurance, “You will know him, even if you never saw him because he will look exactly like he does in the funny papers.”

So was this a real horse, trained to do tricks, and swathed in a blanket? Or was it, as costumed mascots horses today are maybe one or two people in a horse costume like you see in old comedies? We’re not told.

It was quite likely that the Athens audiences would indeed recognize Spark Plug because he and the other characters in the Barney Google comic strip were well known in 1924.  And in fact, the strip still runs today but under the name of another featured character - Snuffy Smith. 

The Barney Google strip began in the newspaper sports pages about 1919, where Barney was depicted as a short, goggle-eyed guy often involved with poker games, prize fights and of course horse races. Eventually, Barney moved to the comics pages.

When Spark Plug first appeared in the strip in 1922 he was depicted as Barney’s “brown-eyed baby,” and was depicted as a bow-legged racehorse almost totally covered by the patched blanket bearing his name.

Incidentally, Barney was also the subject of a popular novelty song recorded at the time by Eddie Cantor and others. Its reoccurring line ran “Barney Google - with the goo, goo, googly eyes…”  

In 1934 Barney and Spark Plug visited the mountains of North Carolina, specifically an area called “Hootin’ Holler.” There they encountered a stereotypical hillbilly character named Snuffy Smith who was wary of outsiders, called “flatlanders” and of course often encountered “revenooers.”  After all, what’s a hillbilly without a moonshine still?

Snuffy’s name was later added to the title of the strip and by the 1950s the characters Barney and Spark Plug had disappeared.   Yet the name has lived on as the nickname of a well-loved figure. For about the time the comic horse appeared in the 1920s there was born a baby who grew up to be a cartoonist of note, and who had the nickname “Sparky” possibly from the carton horse. And it was a nickname he retained all through his life though his real name was Charles M. Schultz.  “Sparky” Schultz, of course, created “Peanuts” and the beloved characters Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus, and others. 


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