This area west of Indianapolis, Indiana, celebrates its many covered bridges during an annual festival each October, but visitors can enjoy these historic structures year-round.
By Jill Richardson
Somehow, we knew the car spinning gravel next to us came from Chicagoland. To be precise, it might even hail from our own warp-speed county located west of the city. How did we know? Because, while we and others drove the rambling roads of west-central Indiana, exited our cars, and wandered through the bridges of Parke County, this couple drove up, clicked a photo out the car window with a cell phone, and zoomed off to the next destination, presumably to complete their circle of “quaint” covered bridges in record time.
But Parke County’s 31 covered bridges aren’t about setting records. Perched over the rivers and ravines of west-central Indiana for 158 years in some cases, these bridges deserve patience. Today, many years later, some of the bridges still do their duty by bearing cars “” instead of buggies, cows, and lovers stopping for a sheltered kiss.
Pennsylvania may have the most covered bridges, Vermont the greatest concentration of them, and New Brunswick, Canada, the longest covered bridge, but Parke County, Indiana, claims more covered bridges “” 31 “” in one easy-to-drive area than anywhere else. Maybe that’s why it calls itself the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World.” And every October, Parke County celebrates its Covered Bridge Festival; this year, it takes place October 10 through 19.
Regardless of whether you visit during the festival, you can obtain a free map detailing five routes “” each departing from and returning to the little town of Rockville “” that take you past most of the bridges and through country towns. If you visit during the festival, however, this area is even more geared toward tourists, with crafters, vendors, entertainers, and cooks all ready to shower their hospitality.
Cars only, please. You will want to leave your motorhome in a nearby campground and tour by car; or, if you don’t have a towed vehicle, take one of the buses that depart from Rockville during the Covered Bridge Festival. The bridges have low weight limits and low height allowances and just cannot accommodate motorhomes. Also, many area roads are winding, narrow, and sometimes have a gravel surface.
The following routes can be found on the county’s official map. To obtain a copy, call (765) 569-5226 or visit www.parkecounty.com.
Turkey Run State Park is a highlight of this loop, for it has a campground that is a contender as a place to stay (see the campground list at the end of this article). Fourteen miles of hiking trails meander through the park’s walnut and sycamore forests, which oversee dramatic sandstone canyons. The park also offers a swimming pool, playground, nature center, horseback riding, tennis courts, and several historic buildings. No need to leave for lunch, for the Turkey Run Inn dining room includes customer favorites such as catfish and country-fried chicken.
Adventurers can paddle Sugar Creek, which runs through the park and under Narrows Bridge. Several outfitters offer canoe, kayak, or tube floats that take visitors beneath bridges and, in the fall, brilliantly colored trees. For those inclined toward on-foot adventures, shop the Sugar Creek Flea Market, on State Route 41 north of the blue route.
In addition to all this, the blue route lays claim to five covered bridges.
This northwestern loop passes five bridges, including the longest single and double spans. Most of the county’s bridges feature barn-red paint, but Jackson Bridge, the longest single span, boasts white paint, and is one of only two that do. Historians guess that red bridges came about to reassure horses and cattle spooked by flowing waters beneath, so they would feel calmer with the familiar barn-type structure. Why white? It’s a mystery.
A trek across the West Union Bridge, the largest double, is a trek indeed, at 315 feet long. No longer in use, this bridge reigns over Sugar Creek on the east side of the loop road. You’ll enjoy seeing Burma Shave signs along the way and a farm machinery “graveyard” at the Antique Machinery Outdoor Museum, which lends the right balance of timelessness and kitsch. The town of Tangier, at the north end of the loop, offers a special kind of cuisine during the bridge festival: “buried beef,” a popular entrée for the past 30 years.
This shortest loop swings past four bridges as well as an old Wabash and Erie Canal site, where boats were unloaded, then turned around to start their journeys anew. Local lore has it that an Amish farmer and his buggy haunt the Sim Smith Bridge, and visitors who hear hoofbeats in the night should beware. We did indeed arrive there in the night, but we didn’t feel too worried since, after all, Amish folk are known for their peaceful ways.
In fact, you might very well share the road with Amish buggies here, full of very much alive and welcoming farmers with their families. Stop for pie at Janet’s Family Restaurant in Montezuma, where customers especially love the fresh strawberry and coconut cream pies. Watch festival dancing performed in the Mecca Bridge, next to the one-room schoolhouse. The young at heart will want to take on the Hobson’s Farm corn maze in the fall (cleverly spelled “MAiZE” in their case), dedicated to the memory of a local soldier.
Red route. The red and black driving routes share Parke County’s claim to picturesque fame, the Bridgeton Bridge. It is said to be the most photographed covered bridge in the United States, and when you see it, you immediately understand why. An old nine-foot dam, undergoing restoration, flows beneath the red board-and-batten-sided bridge, creating a waterfall. It’s the only bridge around with a waterfall beneath, as well as one of the longest bridges in the area, at 245 feet.
Mill owner Mike Roe insists, however, it is really 267 feet long. He should know. He played a role in its reconstruction in 2006, after arsonists destroyed the original. Flour is still ground at the mill, as it has been for 185 years (though not always by him, Mike will point out). If you’re lucky, you’ll get to chat with him about his restoration projects and mill operations, clearly accomplished with a love for the area and pride in old-fashioned workmanship. If you’re even luckier, you’ll take home some Famous Blue Grits or Parke County Pancake Mix, naturally ground and fresh.
The streets of Bridgeton unveil a time-travel transformation, with restored storefronts and schoolhouses offering crafts, artwork, antiques, and food. In fact, the best way to eat on the red route during the Covered Bridge Festival is on the busy streets of Bridgeton, sampling from vendor booths until you have to walk it all off across the bridge.
In addition to six bridges, the black loop takes drivers past Raccoon Lake Recreation Area, a beautiful spot to take a driving break for some boating, fishing, or bird-watching.
Don’t miss a stop in the town of Mansfield, which hosts the largest flea market, as well as the historic Roller Mill, an 1820s gristmill that still grinds flour.
At Mansfield Parke a number of attractions await, such as the Red Barn; the Craft Barn; the Hilltop General Store; the Hilltop Farm Barn, where concerts are held; and the Mansfield Sky Ride, which operates only during the Covered Bridge Festival and provides an eagle’s-eye view of covered bridges.
Want to see a bridge built by a 77-year-old man? Between Rockville and Bridgeton, drive over the McAlister Bridge, constructed by Joseph Britton, who built many of the state’s 400 to 500 original bridges. Two of the three Indiana covered bridge builders lived near Rockville, accounting for the concentration of bridges there. Sadly, only 93 covered bridges remain in the state.
Why did they cover the bridges, anyway? Though the romantic notion of privacy for couples earned the structures the nickname “kissing bridges,” bridges were covered for more practical reasons. Simply, a wooden structure left open to rain, wind, and snow lasted only about 10 years, while a covered one might stay strong for 80 years or more. Look for the arches in the bridges that tell you they’re usually Burr arch truss constructions, a technique developed as a way to keep the bridge’s weight-bearing load equal.
And on you go. Other interesting area sites include Billie Creek Village near Rockville. Billie Creek is a turn-of-the-century village entered via Beeson Bridge, one of the shortest covered bridges in Parke County. On festival days, enjoy carousel and pony rides, storytelling, and music, as well as the authentic general store and village. You can learn about other historical attractions in the area from Parke County Inc. (listed below).
Yes, you can visit these bridges as you please, at any time of year. But October brings out the colorful leaves and the equally colorful vendors and crafters, waiting to share a bit of rural life that “” like the bridges “” too quickly is being bypassed for a faster pace.
Parke County Inc.
P.O. Box 165
Rockville, IN 47872
Please be aware that most area campsites are reserved well in advance for the days of the Covered Bridge Festival; so, if nearby campgrounds are full, you could opt to commute from a more distant campground, to visit at another time, or to make reservations now for next year’s event (October 9 through 18, 2009). More campgrounds in the area may be listed at the Parke County Inc. Web site above.
This may not be a complete list; so please check your campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Covered Bridge Campground
215 S. Erie St.
Rockville, IN 47872
Fallen Rock Parke Campground
8816 S. Fallen Rock Road
Brazil, IN 47834
Raccoon State Recreation Area/Cecil M. Harden Lake
1588 S. Raccoon Parkway
Rockville, IN 47872
(866) 622-6746 “” reservations
(765) 344-1412; (765) 344-1884
www.camp.in.gov “” reservations
Turkey Run State Park
8121 E. Park Road
Marshall, IN 47859
(866) 622-6746 “” reservations
www.camp.in.gov “” reservations