Endangered bridges. Links to the past, or barricades to the future: Will this county burn its (covered) bridges?
Rush County, Ind.
YOUR car rumbles along the county roads, past penned hogs, dogs dozing on porches, and chocolate-colored fields soon to be green with corn and soybeans. Somewhere in this pastoral setting stands Rush County's treasure: seven covered bridges dating back to the late 19th century. But they're hard to find amid the farmland, so you pull off the road to study the X's marked on the map. A pickup truck stops. ``Need help?'' The farmer's voice goes deep, like a stone dropping in a well. And you end up not only with directions from a farmer and spouse, but also an escort partway to the first bridge. Rush County is a friendly spot, built on potluck dinners, recipe swapping, and more than a century of hands-across-the-fields when help was needed.Skip to next paragraph
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But last year the community's solidarity cracked. The rift came over how and whether to preserve the six covered bridges remaining on public roads.
County residents have aligned themselves in two camps. Save them all, urge some citizens, rallying behind the slogan ``Preservation is progress'' in a fight to save yesterday's achievements for tomorrow.
Opponents - led by the Board of County Commissioners, which holds decisionmaking power - view the bridges as barricades to economic advancement. They prefer to preserve only the two best examples of the bridges, built by the Kennedy family of Indiana (see accompanying story).
Commissioner Lowell Angle, known for his hard line against the bridges, recently refused to talk about the issue after his wife arranged an interview in his home. Then, peering out his window, he summed up his attitude succinctly: ``You didn't drive down here in a horse and buggy, did you?''
The bridge battle erupted last year, when various county residents got a notice from the three county commissioners saying that Ferree Bridge, the oldest and most traveled, was doomed. Margery Anderson says this news jolted her. All her life she has lived in the white farmhouse by the bridge. And like many in the county, she viewed Ferree as a heritage symbol that shouldn't be fodder for bulldozers or dismantled and stashed in a warehouse.
The letters that knelled the Ferree's demise poured life into a preservation campaign. All around the county, farmers, mothers, and businesspeople mobilized, forming Rush County Heritage Inc. They sold T-shirts, sweat shirts, and memberships in their organization ($5 and $10) to raise funds. There hadn't been such a ballyhoo since the county's celebrity, Wendell Willkie, made his bid for the presidency in '40.
Although the bridge fight focused on the Ferree, preservationists knew that three other bridges were in jeopardy, too. So some 5,000 county residents of voting age, plus 2,500 youths, signed a petition to save the six bridges, all on county roads mostly in remote areas.
But the three county commissioners have stood fast behind the argument that timber bridges can't accommodate large trucks and heavy farm equipment. Since no state or federal funds are involved, the commissioners have carte blanche over the bridges' destinies - regardless of the fact that all six are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Expectedly, Heritage members don't buy the board's reasoning. Relatively few farmers are inconvenienced by the covered bridges, according to Larry Stout, an accountant who spearheaded the whole preservation movement and is now president of the Heritage group. ``People generally don't farm on two sides of a river, because the family farm sites pre-dated the bridges,'' he explains.
But the truck detour does inconvenience Commissioner Russell Coon, who runs a sand-and-gravel business in the sparsely populated area around Norris Bridge. He says his trucks must make a five-mile detour to bypass Norris Bridge. Does his position as commissioner constitute a conflict of interest? ``No,'' Coon says. ``I'm thinking about the other people who have to go around, too.''
Down the road, Gordon Young, who farms 260 acres, jogs three miles around Norris Bridge when he herds cattle to market about a dozen times a year. ``I grew up going around that bridge. That's part of my life. We respect those bridges,'' he says. ``But why do we want a lot of big trucks on our county roads, anyway?'' he asks. The county has its network of wider state roads, including State Highway 3, which parallels the county road where Ferree Bridge stands.