On our way back from my book signing in Indiana last week, we took a day to do some sightseeing in the state of my birth. Why is it that when you live in a place, you never seem to find the time to visit the points of interest so close to home?
Our intended destination was Parke County on the western side of the state to see the famous covered bridges. Although 25 of our 50 United States still have at least one covered bridge, Parke County in Indiana is the covered bridge capital of the world.
You may remember the 1995 Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie “The Bridges of Madison County” which featured some of Iowa’s covered bridges. Other states with covered bridges are: California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oregon, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Minnesota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Roseman Bridge, Madison County Iowa
Years ago, Parke County had 52 ½ covered bridges. (The other half of the 53rd bridge sat in Vermillion County where it crossed the Wabash River.) Today, Parke County is a destination for tourists because of its 31 remaining covered bridges, many over 100 years old. Twenty-one of the bridges are still in use and 10 have been retired.
Covered bridges were built in the 1800’s and early to mid-1900’s due to the abundance of timber. Construction costs of the Parke County bridges ranged from $1200 – $8000 and it took from six months to a year to build one bridge.
The main reason the bridges were covered was to protect the wooden structures from the elements…sun, rain and snow. They also protected people and horses and carriages from the weather. Uncovered wooden bridges had a short life span of 10 to 15 years. Some of the bridges we saw were close to 150 years old.
Another reason the bridges were covered was that horses didn’t like to cross open bridges because they could hear and see the rushing water below. The bridges were covered and the entrances were shaped like barn doors so the horses would be more willing to enter the bridges and cross the bodies of water.
All of the bridges we saw had the words “Cross this bridge at a walk” painted over the openings at both ends. This was a throwback to horse and buggy days and encouraged bridge crossers to slow down so as not to do structural damage to bridges with the pounding rhythm of horses’ hooves. Also painted over the openings to the bridges were the builder’s names and the year the bridges were built. We saw one bridge that had burned and had been rebuilt by local folks in 2006.
All of the bridges we visited were built with huge arches on the sides called “Burr Arches”. The arches were bent using steam which took a considerable amount of time. These added strength and support and were named after Theodore Burr, who is known as the Father of American Bridge Building. He patented his Burr Arch design in 1820.
Most of the bridges were made from yellow poplar, but a few were made from white pine. Most of the ones we saw had open air windows on both sides. Covered bridges once were called “kissing bridges” because courting couples would stop and steal a kiss under their arches. And yes, we did stop and kiss in some of the bridges just for fun!
Many of the bridges were covered with graffiti and love notes, which surprised me. I guess that’s what people do…leave their marks. Some of the bridges had bird nests built in the trusses inside. The 2006 rebuilt bridge was lighted and quite lovely at night.
At one of our stops for directions, we were told that Parke County is the poorest county in Indiana. It is very rural with a lot of farmland and it is also very beautiful. We searched all of a day and part of a night for covered bridges and got to see about a third of the 31 bridges in the county. Although many of them were similar, each was beautiful and unique and had its own personality. My husband and I were fascinated by them.
Since 1957, Parke County has been hosting the ten-day Covered Bridge Festival in October. Each year, one of the 31 bridges is featured and commemorative pins, magnets and souvenirs are made for collectors and covered bridge fans.
Over two million people come from all over the world to see and celebrate the covered bridges every October. This year’s festival, which is the largest in Indiana, will be held from October 9th – 18th.