There are certain things in our nation's past that seem to have disappeared from history without any thought or notion or, in many cases, any recollection from people living here in the 21st century. Covered bridges are one such piece of Americana that has gone down that same route. Not that they are gone from our landscape - no sir! In fact, there are still over 700 of these vestiges from the past still standing proudly throughout the United States, most in their original locations. But those locations are usually off the beaten path...tucked in out-of-the-way corners of rural America.
|The Ackley Covered Bridge still in
its original location near West Finley, Pennsylvania in 1937|
When such a bridge is discovered spanning a creek, stream, or river, however, the beauty can be absolutely breathtaking.
"At one time covered bridges were as much a part of any journey as are today's traffic signals." So says noted Americana historian Eric Sloane. And why wouldn't they be? Wood was plentiful and cheap, though the structures did require considerable maintenance.
Henry Ford knew the commonality of the covered bridges in the 19th century, and when the opportunity arose to have one placed in his ever-growing Greenfield Village open air museum, he didn't think twice.
|Bridge builder Joshua Ackley|
The bridge Mr. Ford became aware of spanned what was then known as Enlow's Fork of Wheeling Creek near West Finley, Pennsylvania, seven miles from the birthplace of William McGuffey - the man best known for writing the McGuffey Readers, one of our nation's earliest and most widely used school textbooks. Replacing an earlier swinging (or "grapevine") bridge, the Ackley Covered Bridge was built in 1832 by Daniel and Joshua Ackley, from whose land the great oak timbers came, along with more than 100 other men of the community, most of whom were in their teens and early twenties. It was constructed as a community enterprise and pride was taken in the workmanship.
A number of these local folk at the time felt the bridge should have been constructed of hickory in honor of the then president, Andrew Jackson, known by his nickname, 'Old Hickory.' But after much discussion, that idea was abandoned probably due to the fact that hickory warped so easily and would more than likely deflect too much, so white oak was chosen in its place.
|There were numerous articles in the
paper telling of the imminent razing
of the bridge.
It's what we call 'progress!'
The main reason for the wooden covering on these bridges was to protect its structure; unlike the bridge itself, the covering was inexpensive and easy to replace.
105 years after its construction it was a rotting, deteriorating vestige of the past, and was scheduled to be torn down to make way for a new modern replacement.
That this local landmark was to be razed made headlines in the local papers. A newspaper article from April 2, 1937 reads (in part):
"There is always a sensation of sadness and regret that overshadows us when we are apprised of the fact that one of our cherished landmarks, or some material structure that has been made dear to us, either by economic or social doings, or both, has the withering decree pronounced upon it, that it is no longer capable of serving a useful purpose and must be relegated into the field of oblivion.
Such is our feeling when we are awarded the information that the grand old historic bridge commonly known as Ackley's Covered bridge" is to be removed and replaced with a modern structure.
You are respectfully requested to visit this bridge and view this massive but faded old servant and sentinel of the past. Please come soon for "The State Highway Department of Pennsylvania" is moving to replace this old, historic, and time-honored institution..."
|An Ackley family reunion in 1937 - they came to say farewell to the this old, historic, and time-honored institution|
And then shortly afterward, the paper had these headlines:
ACKLEY COVERED BRIDGE WILL BE PART OF FORD'S AMERICANA
One of this district's historic landmarks will be dismantled starting today, and will be taken to form a part of Henry Ford's historic exhibition.
The historic Ackley bridge has been purchased by Mrs. Elizabeth Lucille Evans, a descendant of the pioneer whose name it bears, and she has presented it to Henry Ford to be given a place of honor in his historic collection of historic American articles at his Greenfield Village at Dearborn, Michigan.
|The Ackley Bridge was re-erected over a specially dug man-made pond in Greenfield Village, where today it is seen and appreciated by thousands of visitors each year.|
|Few covered bridges
will ever find|
a safer or more pleasant environment in
which to spend their retirement years.
Roy Schumann was in charge of the bridge restoration project, and he said that, "There was about eight inches of snow on the ground and it was ten degrees below zero. We went ahead and started tearing (the bridge) down. It stayed cold all the time we were there which was one of the best things because when we dropped a roof board (on the water below), the ice was there to catch it. All we had to do was pick it off. We tore the whole thing down. I would say we were down there about three or four weeks.
The next morning (after completion and clean up) it rained, turned warmer, and took all the ice out of the river. If it had done that a week before, and that ice hadn't frozen, it would have taken the bridge and everything down the river. The timbers were numbered and went back to the place they originally came from. We had to dig all the stones out of the bank and bring (them) back with us here. We went down there the first part of December and came back the 23rd of December. It was just two nights before Christmas when we got back."
|This history of this bridge is usually over-looked by most visitors, but there are stories to tell...|
There are numerous stories associated with this wonderful piece of Americana. In one such story descendent Mrs. Evans tells of the danger involving Indians the builders toiled in while constructing the structure back in 1832:
The builders of the bridge "were made the target of arrows and rifle balls fired from the hills that border the creek. They were fired by the Indians who still roved through the territory, some of whom resented this evidence of the white man's progress.
Since that time the bridge has been the central point for a community."
|After reading the stories herein, I can no longer enter the bridge without thinking of them.|
Another story was actually handwritten in letter form by William Plants and sent to Henry Ford in 1938. In part he writes:
|Waiting for the preacher?|
"As I was born and raised near there (and) I left that country and came to Dakota in 1885, my only sister living lives near there, so in August of this year (after a 29 year separation) I went to see her and recalled so many things that we remembered.
"When (I) was a little boy I have crossed (the covered bridge) and fished in the Ackley Creek - Crick - near, and under it.
"One thing (might) be of interest to you in connection to the bridge, in about the year1879, when a lot of people in the hills of West Virginia - not far from this bridge, were very poor and not much schooling - there was a young man by the name of George Meris who made "lasses" (molasses) from sorghum cane, he fell in love and went a-sparkin' a young girl. He finally popped the question and wanted to get married. She said she had no dress except the old faded calico one she had on. He had .50 cents. They went to the little store and got calico enough for .35 cents to make a dress. And, dressed up in that they went up to the creek to this bridge, and so happened that the 'Circuit ridin' parson' came along. And they got married on this same Ackley Bridge you have. And he gave the preacher the .15 cents he had left of the 50 for his fee. THIS IS THE TRUTH."
|If you look closely, you can see the train a-comin' in the distance.|
|4th of July 2012: |
A picnic underneath a weeping willow while in the shadow of the bridge. Yes, we are dressed in 1860's clothing to add to our ambiance.
I suppose, in our own way, we are adding to its history and stories, aren't we?
Click the arrow on the video below to hear the past - - - -
All this from a wooden bridge that should have been torn down 80 years ago.
Thank God it wasn't, for it is one of the most picturesque areas of Greenfield Village.
I would like to take a moment to thank Mark Ackley, a direct descendant of the Ackley's that built this wonderful vestige of 19th century Americana, for providing the old original photos of the bridge and of the Ackley family.
|Mark Ackley and I at the bridge his ancestors built.|
Please click HERE to go to the Ackley Family website. There is some very important information about how the family is trying to save the historic homestead, which was built in 1840 by Joshua Ackley and once stood in easy sight of the bridge.
All color photos here were taken by me (or my wife) inside Greenfield Village.
To learn more about Michigan's covered bridges, click HERE