Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The 1832 Ackley Covered Bridge

"I climbed back onto my perch in the driver’s seat of the carriage and snapped the 
reins.  We moved forward with a jerk,  and then entered the darkness of the covered bridge.  The clatter made by the wheels and horse’s hooves banging on the uneven wooden floor boards was very loud indeed as it reverberated off the inside walls."

Click the arrow on the image below to hear the past~

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 local 
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 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:
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.

By summer of 1938,  it proudly stood over a man-made waterway inside of Greenfield Village.  The Ackley descendants,  as well as numerous McGuffey descendants  (for it has been felt that William McGuffey crossed this bridge),  were at the dedication ceremony.

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 year 1879,  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.
To me,  it's stories like these that just bring the Ackley Covered Bridge to life.  This special piece of Americana is truly a highlight of my visits to Greenfield Village and I never tire of crossing it.  In fact,  my wife & kids and I,  along with a few friends,  even picnic  'neath a weeping willow that grows next to it. 
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?
I must say,  by the way,  that I really enjoy hearing the sound of the horses hooves as they pound the wooden planks of the bridge upon crossing.  It is a sound and vision from the past like no other,  and this sensory gives one a wonderfully reflective moment.
(click video link near the top of this post)
All this from a wooden bridge that should have been torn down over 80 years ago.
Thank God it wasn't,  for it is one of the most picturesque areas of Greenfield Village.
The Ackley Covered Bridge truly is a vision of the past
By the way,  for historical purposes,  covered bridges weren't always a part of America;  it is to my understanding that erecting covered bridges in this country didn't occur until early in the 19th century.  The first known covered bridge constructed in the United States was the Permanent Bridge,  completed in 1805 to span the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

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

Other information about the Ackley Covered Bridge came from the Benson Ford Research Center.



Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken, I absolutely love covered bridges. There is one not too far from where I grew up, still in its original location, and I have taken my kids there numerous times. If you are interested you can see it if you google Union Covered Bridge, Monroe County, Missouri.
Neat picnic photo of you guys, and even neater I'm sure were the sound of those horse hooves on the planks of wood. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

I too have a passion for the past, and am always happy to chance upon another historians' weblog...

I have yet to see the Ackley, and now feel a need to make a point of it for species identification. The allusion to "the great Oaks" and the talk of Hickory as a framing timber for the bridges trusses caught my attention, neither being a commonly used specie for this purpose. (I've seen something approaching two hundred and can count the number of times I've seen Oak framing on one hand)

I'd also wish to see the workmanship, to see if there was some possibility that it was framed by a group of locals and not a small crew of professional Bridgewrights.

It is these stories of the everyday, and the little mysteries they hold which for me is the passion.

-- Will

Unknown said...

Ken, I enjoy your history lessons here!
I used to tell the stories of the bridge while I drove the carriages through the bridge.
One of my favorite parts of the tour.
Thanks for posting this one!
Dave Tanner
Ret. Carriage Driver

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,
I grew up just about a mile from Ackley's Bridge so that area holds many good memories. The link for the Ackley Family website at the bottom of your blog no longer works. Do you happen to know what the new one is? Thanks in advance!

Lisa (Amos) Gerhart

Richard Harrison said...

My father worked with George Washington Carver in the soybean lab in the 1930's
which is now in the Greenfield Village. I have a medallion which is bronze with blue cloth with my father's name which my father received by being at the dedication of the Ackley by the Federation McGuffey Societies on July 2, 1938.

Richard Harrison