|By CONNIE SWAIM
ROCKVILLE, Ind. — For more than 100 years, the 31 covered bridges of Parke County, Ind. did their job of getting people and vehicles from one side of a body of water to the other. Now the bridges do their part to keep the economy of this rural county going.
Hundreds of thousands of people will visit this county of fewer than 16,000 residents during the 10-day Parke County Covered Bridge Festival. This year’s festival is Oct. 14-23.
The festival was started almost 50 years ago as a way to honor the bridges and the vanishing ways of rural life. Craftsmen came together and demonstrated woodcarving and pottery making, while giant cast-iron pots of ham and beans scented the air with hearty smells. The first festivals were weekends only, but through the years the event has grown to 10 days and now spills into surrounding counties.
This year’s festival will be especially poignant to local residents as it is the first one since the county lost the famed Bridgeton Bridge to arson earlier this year. The 1868 bridge over Raccoon Creek sat near a mill and was one of the most photographed bridges in the country. Plans are now under way to raise funds to rebuild an exact replica of the bridge.
Visitors will find flea markets, food vendors, artisans and craftspeople and beautiful fall colors at every turn. Each town in the county takes part in the festival, and the two major highways leading to Parke County will be lined with people selling everything from antiques to persimmon pudding.
The festival headquarters are located on the Rockville town square surrounding the 1880s-vintage courthouse. Here visitors will find information on the different bridges, maps of the county and the opportunity to take guided bus tours of the bridges.
While craft vendors are set up around the square, many people come for the food. Ham and beans have been cooked in the same location for decades and the line for crullers, a kind of pastry, can be 100 people deep early in the morning. Pumpkin ice cream and persimmon pudding are also items many people visiting the festival have never tried before.
The bridge maps available from Parke County Inc. are easy to follow for those who want to drive and take in the fall colors. The routes are marked with color-coded signs matching the colors of the bridge map. The routes will take people through farm country where the harvesting of corn and beans will be in progress. Several of the bridge routes also go through the county’s Amish communities.
The towns along the bridge routes all have special events during the festival. Besides the activities in Rockville, both Mansfield and Bridgeton draw large crowds.
Both towns have huge flea markets with hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors selling both new and old items.
Mansfield also has a mill open for tours as well as a covered bridge located in the heart of the activities. While the Bridgeton Bridge is gone, the mill will be grinding flour and the town will still be full of activity.
Other highlights include apple butter demonstrations at the historic Quaker community of Bloomingdale; buried roast beef in Tangier, a pig roast in Montezuma and tours of a one-room schoolhouse in Mecca.
Parke Players will present their annual melodrama in the evenings in Rockville at the restored Ritz Theatre, and there will be quilt auctions around the courthouse square several times during the festival.
Billie Creek Village is located just east of Rockville. Visitors will find crafters demonstrating life as it would have been at the turn of the 20th century. Restored buildings are set up to show a typical town of the time period and there are three covered bridges on the property. Clabber Girl baking demonstrations will be at Billie Creek on Oct. 14-15.
Other highlights of the festival include an antique tractor show in Montezuma on Oct. 14-15 and an auction to benefit the Bridgton Bridge rebuilding fund in Rockville on Oct. 21. On Oct. 20 spinners and weavers will demonstrate their crafts on the front porch of the old Parke County jail, which now serves as the Tourist Information Center.
For more information call 765-569-5226. A list of activities can be found online at www.parkecounty.com