ROCKVILLE — Think of the county seat of Parke County as Crown Point South … with covered bridge instead of brewpub tours as one of the county's leading attractions.
Antique stores ring the courthouse square in Rockville just as they do in Crown Point. There is a winery in the Old Jail Inn instead of an artisan brewery, but the 36 Saloon is also a popular food and beverage spot on the square's northeast corner.
Both municipalities, of course, benefit from their proximity to local parks that beckon boaters, campers, hikers, bikers, canoeists, fishermen and nature lovers as well as those in the market for nostalgia and kitsch.
But it is a testament to the popularity of the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival, celebrating "The Covered Bridge Capital of the World," that Parke County's vintage wooden spans have been listed among the state's top attractions for the 60 years since the festival's inception.
The county's 31 covered bridges — the two oldest of which were built in 1856 — have kept it on the map as well as kick-started its tourism industry. Festivals have drawn anywhere from 1 million to 2 million visitors depending on the weather for 10 days each October, according to Kelsey Canfield, executive secretary of Parke County, Inc. Her agency promotes the event featuring “homemade, hand crafter vendors” and nonprofit food shacks on the square.
Bus tours of the bridges leave from a nearby tourism information center during the event.
How many other tourists view them on self-guided tours, which are possible year round for motorists and bicyclists along five color-coded routes, is anyone's guess. Travel & Leisure magazine once voted the 24- to 36-mile long routes an American Best Winter Drive.
Jim Meece, president of the county Convention and Visitors Commission as well as a Parke County commissioner, ensures visitors can reach them along the many blacktop roads and trails. Infrastructure, he says, ranks high among the county's priorities not only for transportation, but tourism.
When the 245-foot covered bridge spanning Raccoon Creek in Bridgeton was destroyed by arson in 2005, Meece helped establish a fundraising campaign to rebuild it a year later. He's also overseen construction of new spans at five sites, so aging covered bridges could be bypassed by vehicle traffic in favor of foot.
Similarly, he and others have been refurbishing an abandoned railroad bridge near Montezuma to provide a concrete walkway for bicyclists and hikers on the Gateway Trail Association route into Vermillion County.
Meece is well aware of the Covered Bridge Festival's economic impact over the decades. His mother, Martha Presslor, was among the first vendors selling maple syrup at the inaugural fest in 1957. She added sassafras candy at the first Maple Syrup Festival three years later (the 2018 event is Feb. 24-25 and March 3-4) as the family business, Sweetwater Farms, continued to flourish.
Three other maple syrup camps participate in the fair, and Sweetwater Farms sells literally a ton of sassafras candy in 6-ounce bags for $2 to the thousands who annually attend, Meece says.
Being near Turkey Run State Park in nearby Marshall, Shades State Park and the Raccoon State Recreation Area helps attract visitors, Meece says, but the county holds its own despite an annual tourism budget of only $125,000 and the lack of a "sizable, name hotel with someone who could organize events."
“Parke County is not a destination, but we are doing a better job of becoming a destination,” Meece said.
Similar rural counties, such as Brown, known for its artist colony and fall foliage, can rely on interstate travelers, Meece noted, but Parke is some 40 miles from the nearest interstate.
A living history museum, Billie Creek Village near Cecil Harden Lake (aka Raccoon Lake), which once hosted the largest Civil War re-enactment in Indiana, has struggled to stay afloat. Re-enactors were unable to co-ordinate their annual participation, for instance, and such sites “have to have programs going all the time,” Meece added.
Billie Creek Village's future is uncertain, and plans for a round barn "convention center" there were scrubbed, but Meece hopes a new owner might one day revive the 70-acre site which features 38 historical structures.
Meanwhile Raccoon State Recreation Area provides beachfront RV sites as well as boating and fishing. The 36 Saloon is a destination for motorcyclists (“You mention Rockville to any motorcyclists and they all say 'Oh, yeah, that's where the 36 Saloon is,'” Meece says), and the Heirloom Traders Association has 11 member antique stores in and around Rockville.
Shopping, recreation and journeys into the past … if Parke County hasn't quite made it as a year-round tourist destination, it's not from lack of trying.