It’s all backroads to the past in Parke County, Indiana, where winding lanes cross covered bridges spanning creeks, many of them still carrying traffic as they have for more than 150 years — albeit no longer horse-drawn buggies.
Their exteriors painted red or white, on each side are windows overlooking the water, supposedly so horses wouldn’t spook in total darkness.
At one time, there were an estimated 500 such bridges in Indiana; now just a few are scattered here and there around the state. But a concentration of them can be found in Parke County, where 31 dot the rural landscape.
For most of the year, the small villages and towns are quiet, as travelers follow five color-coded routes designed for easy exploring. But during the annual Parke County Covered Bridge Festival, held this year from Oct. 11-20, hundreds of vendors and crafters sell their wares and townspeople stage their own distinct and traditional events for some two million visitors.
For rare gastronomic treats, follow the yellow road to Tangiers, known for "buried beef," a days-long process of slow cooking meat underground. There’s a hog roast in Montezuma (brown route) and homemade apple butter at the Friends Church in Bloomingdale (yellow route), a Quaker community.
In the mill town of Bridgeton, on the red route, are such historic buildings as Collom’s General Store — the village’s only store open year round, the 1878 House, Bridgeton School and Parke County’s oldest building, the 1822 Case Log Cabin.
The biggest draw here, though, is the Bridgeton Mill. Amazingly bucolic, a cascading waterfall and 268-foot covered bridge next to the three-story mill are so picture-perfect it’s said to be the most photographed spot in the Midwest. The oldest continuously operating mill in Indiana and possibly the Midwest, it is open year-round but really gets grinding during the festival.
“We sell about 40,000 pounds of flour, pancake mix and cornmeal every year, and a lot of that is during the festival,” owner Mike Roe said.
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Roe bought the mill in 1995 after seeing a for sale sign on its door (“I came home and my wife asked me how my day was and I told her I just spent a quarter-of-a-million dollars for a mill”) but its history goes back to the 1820s.
While the Bridgeton Mill is always open, the Mansfield Mill, on the black route, and the historic shops nearby do business only during festivals, though the white-painted Mansfield Covered Bridge is crossable year round. Also in the village of Mansfield, Chris Priebe will be continuing a three decades-long tradition by selling Audrey’s Pumpkin Rolls. These hand-filled cake rolls come in 13 flavors and are considered a special treat.
There are other ways to travel in Parke County, during the festival and at other times.
Kayaking on the slow-moving Sugar Creek provides a distinctly different view, as it flows under several covered bridges, and guided trail riding at Turkey Run State Park offers peeks of bridges through the trees.
For free entertainment, maps, bus tours and serious antique shopping, head to the festival’s headquarters on the old fashioned Indiana courthouse square, dominated by an 1880 Second Empire style courthouse, in downtown Rockville.
For more information, stop at the Visitors Center, or download a map from the website and take a trip back in time.
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