The book and subsequent movie, “The Bridges of Madison County,” share the same setting in a beautiful part of the Midwest—Madison County, Iowa. Located southwest of the state capital, Des Moines, are six original covered bridges that you really must see! Visitors can follow a self-guided tour or call ahead and schedule a two-hour tour, hosted by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide. A fall trip would be ideal because the brilliantly colored leaves provide a perfect backdrop for these famous bridges.
Covered bridge history
Building the bridge
From the 1830s to the 1870s, covered bridges were a popular way to construct passageways over rivers and streams. Timber trusses spanned the divide. Bridge decking and siding were added, with a pitched (slanted) roof completing the structure.
I always believed that bridges were covered in order to provide refuge or protection for travelers. With a roof and sides, the covered bridge could shelter folks from the bitter wind or pelting rain. Sure, travelers could find brief respite within the confines of the covered bridge, but the main reason covered bridges were built? To prolong the life span of the bridge. Yes, that was the motivation for covering it. Uncovered bridges, at the time, lasted 10 to 20 years. A covered bridge could last more than a century—and many still stand as proof of that today.
Another misconception of mine? I thought a benefit of covered bridges was that snow would not accumulate on the bridge deck. It turns out, however, that in winter folks often had to shovel snow onto the bridge deck in order to enable a horse-drawn sleigh to cross.
Finally, I’d always wondered about the red paint. Throughout the Midwest, covered bridges are painted red. (Same goes for many barns.) The reason had nothing to do with aesthetics or unwritten “rules” of the countryside. Red paint was most often used because it was cheaper!
Bridges and more
Madison County’s covered bridges are great—a definite must-see! But there are many other reasons for you to visit this wonderful part of the Midwest:
- Winterset, Iowa, in the heart of “bridge country,” offers many retail stores with quality merchandise.
- Visit the birthplace of the famous actor John Wayne, and tour a museum built in his honor.
- Tour and taste-test the finest of Iowa wines at a nearby winery.
- Take a quilting or glass-fusing class (or watch demonstrations).
- Tour “old-time Iowa,” courtesy of Madison County’s Historical Society.
- Visit the Iowa Quilt Museum.
- Go biking, hiking, birdwatching, golfing, hunting in season, or fishing. (Bonus: cross-country skiing in winter!)
My recommendation? Read the book “The Bridges of Madison County” again or watch the movie. Then hit the road. Destination: Madison County, Iowa. Best of all? I think you’ll find the people of Iowa are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever hope to meet.
Finding the covered bridges
There are many, many other covered bridges to explore in the United States. Do you have a special favorite to recommend? Please share in the comments below.