“There are images that lie within my heart…images with the power to recall the warmth of a summer’s night, the stillness before a storm. Reminding me of the first time I ever saw him…there was nowhere else to go except towards love.” Meryl Streep as Francesa in The Bridges of Madison County.
When I hear these words spoken in the movie I just get chills. So incredibly romantic. It was filmed among the fertile farmlands and rolling hills of southern Iowa as a backdrop. One of the underlying themes of the film is that romance can flourish suddenly in everyday moments. If you have not seen the film, or read the novel, this is a timeless love story filmed in Winterset Iowa including the historic and iconic covered bridges located throughout…you guessed it: Madison County.
I am an Iowa girl, born and raised in Des Moines. After moving away from Iowa, I always come back to visit, but had never journeyed to Winterset (very close to Des Moines) to see the covered bridges until recently. I went on a delightful day trip there with my Mom, aunt and cousin. We discovered that there are six covered bridges in Madison County. That is the highest concentration of covered bridges, in one area, west of the Mississippi River. It’s interesting to note that the eastern state of Pennsylvania boasts the most covered bridges of any state with the a whooping total of 219 covered bridges. Now that’s an incredible amount of history preserved; if only those bridges could talk….imagine the tales they would reveal.
The practice of covering bridges developed out of a need to protect the interior wooden trusses and floor boards, which deteriorated quickly in the severe weather of the plains. It was easier, and more economical, to replace boards and roofing then the interior trusses. Many of the bridges were lost to floods, ice jams, fires and just the procession of progress. Starting in 1884, many of the older bridges were replaced with steel. In 1933, the Madison County Historical Society began a campaign to save the remaining bridges. Of the original 19 bridges than spanned across the county, six iconic bridges remain. The bridges have been lovingly restored, maintained and span across creeks and streams in the county. They dot the landscape as an architectural reminder of a by-gone era.
Our first stop was at the Madison County Welcome Center (Chamber of Commerce). It is easy to find: right across the street from the impressive and quite tall courthouse in the town square of Winterset, Iowa. The address of the center is 73 Jefferson Street. The folks are so helpful there and it is a terrific place to get your bearings and the complete back story about this interesting community. Come to find out, Winterset is also the birthplace of John Wayne. There is a museum with an impressive bronze statute of the famous cowboy and also a small home designated as his birthplace. When we were there, there were no true John Wayne fans in the car, so we drove on to see the bridges.
One of the easiest bridges to find is located right inside their city park: Cutler-Donahoe. The bridge was built in 1870 over the North River in Bevington, but was moved to the city park location in 1970. This was the very first bridge we saw and it does have a “wow” factor. Even though it is not very long, it is beautifully built and it easy to allow yourself the time to become immersed in admiring the craftsmanship.
The Holliwell Bridge spans across the Middle River and was featured in the movie. It is the longest of the bridges spanning 110 feet. It was exciting to see this particular bridge and then see it featured in the film. It’s so delightful to have one of those “Oo, Oo! I have been there!” moments. Out of the six bridges in Madison County only two were featured in the film, however the entire film was filmed locally, so many Winterset locations are recognizable. The town square, Northside Cafe and the Pheasant Run Tavern were all sites in the movie.
The oldest of the remaining bridges is the Imes Bridge. It was built in 1871. Like all of the Madison County bridges, it has been placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. You can understand why this is the case, admiring the covered bridges brings a certain sense of nostalgia. As you walk thru the bridges the sturdy timbers under your feet are worn yet strong. The cross beams not only support the walls and roof , but create a unique, cross hatch design element characteristic of these timely structures. No wonder they were used for the back drop of a romantic love story. Sometimes it’s the simple beauty in everyday things that warms our hearts. If you are in the Des Moines area…I highly recommend a trip to Winterset. Put your traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith