Words inspired by the backroads of America

Covered Bridges and a Step Back in Time

If you yearn for a deep breath of earthy, Midwestern farmland air and a leisurely meander around one of the most photo-op friendly counties in Indiana, take a step back in time and tour the Covered Bridge Capital of the World, also known as Parke County, Indiana.

We had often read about Parke County and their claim on the Covered Bridge Capital in the many web sites that come up when you search for covered bridges, but had not actually made it there, until late last summer.  Heading south from a week in Wisconsin, we had a couple of extra days to wander the backroads, so we plunged straight through the freeway ring of Chicago and headed for the heart of Indiana farm country and the much-hyped Parke County and their thirty-some covered bridges.  While late August may not be the most ideal time to tour Indiana, we prefer the quiet solitude of summer over the more colorful, but festival-packed, crowded and chaotic October.  Literally, hundreds of thousand sightseers and festival junkies throng to Parke County for the annual Covered Bridge Festival every October, but if you just want to experience the slow-paced, laid-back rural countryside dotted with the most amazing collection of Burr Arch covered bridges in the world, visit in the spring or summer.

Driving into Rockville is like a step back in time.  The town square harkens from some early 1900’s era with the brick Italianate storefronts housing the usual variety stores, craft and antique shops, the requisite soda shop, a collection of professional offices and the Ritz Theater.  The community has embraced the distinction of the Covered Bridge Capital of the World and has visitor centers handy to provide maps and information for the curious.  One caution we might provide is that the signage provided to guide one around the several routes to the bridges is severely lacking.  It’s as if they assume everyone will simply follow the crowds during the festival.  Never-the-less, a wander through the rolling farmland in search of the bridges yields some benefits of its own.

Spending a day driving the tall cornfields, we were able to hide away from the bustle of the outside world and slow down enough to experience the sounds and smells of the country.  Just rolling the windows down brings the crunching of the gravel roads, the rustle of cornstalks in the breeze, the singing of grasshoppers and the myriad other country critters, the clatter of hand-hewn timber flooring of the bridges as you drive through and the rich, earthy smells of cultivation and livestock.  It’s a sensual, heady experience. 

The bridges, stars of the county notoriety, are worth a walking study.  The Burr arches, the internal frame of the bridge that carries the weight, were patented in the 1820’s by Theodore Burr.  These massive Poplar timbers were steamed and bent to form the distinctive arch structure.  The planking was generally White Oak for its strength and durability.  During the time when these bridges were originally built, all the work was done by hand, including hand-hewing the beams and fastening all but the main timbers with wooden pegs.  The covered bridge itself was devised to shield the floor timbers from the weather and to fool horse teams into thinking they were entering a barn rather than crossing a bridge.  There must have been more than one instance of spooked horses giving their drivers a wild ride, due to open bridge crossings, to cause the builders to devise such an elaborate sham.  Also, take notice the signs warning of crossing at no more than a walk.  It makes you wonder how many bridges collapsed due to teams of horses setting up harmonic vibrations during a lively canter through the bridge.  Oh, those crossing hazards! 

Two bridges, on either ends of the county are must-sees for the short-of-time visitor.  The Bridgeton Bridge and Mill is on the red southern route, if you can manage to follow the markers.  The community of Bridgeton was founded in 1818 on the banks of the Big Raccoon Creek.  The bridge standing there today is the third in its history, but J. J. Daniels built this one to last.  The existing, 247 foot-long bridge has been there since 1868.  The Bridgeton Mill, the last family-owned operating grist mill in the county, as been grinding corn meal and flour since 1870.  Spend a little time on the banks of the Big Raccoon and you will fill your camera disk with many memorable scenes.  Sandwiches are available at the mill, but for a unique, local establishment, try to find the Longhorn Tavern Restaurant, located near the Roseville Bridge at Coxville, between Rosedale and Mecca on CR67.  Over great home-cooking, you’ll hear about the career and exploits of Tex Terry, the local guy who became movie cowboy bad-man, with black hat and all, during the Tom Mix and Gene Autry era.

If you are looking for the iconic covered bridge scene, the other must-see is the Narrows Bridge, north of Rockville at the Turkey Run State Park.  This bridge, built in 1882, spans the gap in Sugar Creek as it necks down to funnel through massive limestone cut.  A stroll down the pathway on the north end of the bridge will take you to the photo-op location.  Parke County is rich with experiences, if you take your time to wander.  From covered bridges (all 30 or so of them) to roller and grist mills, farm markets to Amish country shops, from festivals to antique shops and from scenic farmland to blue-sky-and-puffy-cloud serenity, the county is worth a day or two for rejuvenating.
 

Step back in time, wander some gravel roads, experience the joy as you happen upon the covered bridges and take in the feel of the countryside.

For more information about the Parke County covered bridges, go to
http://www.coveredbridges.com/