Madison County Bridges Build Path to Historical Past

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MADISON COUNTY, Iowa - Nestled in America's heartland are the bridges of Madison County, Iowa, made famous by a book and movie. Now the picturesque structures are helping reveal the importance of preserving heritage.

Tourist Heather Tolvanen recently snapped photos of her four children standing in the entrance of the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge. She saw first-hand the brilliance the bridges of Madison County represent.

"It is a little bit emotional just being in the places where people, pioneers have been," she said. "It's just important for me to have my kids know that."

Madison County tour guide Bob Kaldenberg gave an inside look at the unique structures and the history behind them.

"The cover on the bridge protected the planks on the bridge and therefore, protected the undergirding and the bridges would last longer," he explained.

Farmers built the red, wooden structures in the late 1800s to transport their crops to market. But over time, the farm-to-market bridges became less useful.

Equipment was too heavy, high, and wide for the covered bridges. As a result, farmers were forced to travel long distances to get to their destinations.

The county then built bypass bridges and the covered bridges were neglected and eventually closed.  The bridges once vital to Iowa's agricultural economy seemed to fade into the countryside.

More Than Bridges

"Then they would deteriorate more until the 1960s and 70s," Kaldenberg said. "[But] we began to realize that there weren't that many of the 19 left, and we better take care of what we got."

Today, only six of the original 19 covered bridges still stand. Storms and floods destroyed some. Others have been marred by graffiti.

"It saddens me to see that people have written all over it," Tolvanen said.

Still, the bridges enjoyed a resurgence in public interest during the 1990s, when the novel The Bridges of Madison County was made into a major motion picture.

The movie, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, told the story of an Iowa housewife who has an affair with a photographer sent to take pictures of the bridges.

Ten years before the movie, a real-life adulterous scenario unfolded involving the McBride Bridge.

Kaldenberg says a man, distraught about his mistress going back to her husband, tried to burn off their initials carved in a heart on the bridge.

"He succeeded in burning the whole bridge down," Kaldenberg said.

The McBride bridge isn't the only covered bridge to go up in flames.

In 2002, an arsonist destroyed the 1883 Cedar Bridge that graces the cover of The Bridges of Madison County novel. A year later, arson also damaged the 1884 Hogback Bridge.

"It's sad that somebody would rip that away from people in the future that would get to see all these historical things," Tolvanen said. "This isn't something that was made by a machine. This was made by people and hardworking hands, and that's really, really sad.

Preserving History

But, there are lessons to be learned from the bridges of Madison County.

County leaders realized the importance of paying attention to the local pieces of history that now have nationwide recognition.

Video cameras monitor the six remaining bridges. In addition, the destroyed Cedar Bridge has been replaced with a replica, built with the same materials and methods used in the original 19th century construction.

For Kaldenberg, it's a matter of preserving heritage.

"If we don't pay attention to our history and what our founding fathers studied, and learn from their history, it's a downhill slide," he said.

At the moment, the future seems bright for the six covered bridges of Madison County, quietly existing and revealing to new generations the peace of an era gone by.

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.