Small Towns & Covered Bridges

Sunday, October 26, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

Living in Winterset is easy and comfortable. To me it feels like a different country compared to trying to survive in a big city, as we did for so long. I know, Winterset is in the middle of Iowa, which is the middle of America, and in many ways most Americans, who live in big metroplexes and along the coasts, probably consider it a foreign country too. The great middle of the United States is often the brunt of jokes, is considered boring, and not "with it". But as I've aged and have re-oriented my values, I like the simpler life of places like this. People have few pretensions, they're friendlier, come across as more genuine, and seem to be more about enjoying what they have rather than worrying about something they don't have. The pace of life seems more natural, at least to me.

The other day we needed a few grocery items. Winterset's only grocery store is a nice sized Fareway Store situated, not out in a strip mall on the edge of town, but right downtown. We've been in grocery stores all over the country and I make it a practice to compare them, focusing on selection, prices, and the general feel of each place. This one impressed me from the moment I got out of the car. It was quite busy and they had what seemed to be a small army of people hustling every customer's groceries out to their cars. And I mean they were hustling. Once inside, there was another army stocking shelves, checking, and bagging. They have a meat counter with real, live, meat-cutters, butchers -- and I mean professionals who looked, acted, and sounded like they knew what they were talking about. The store wasn't huge by today's standards, but with enough room for a great selection of at least the things we normally look for. And the prices were very reasonable... as low or lower than WalMart in many cases. If you lived almost anywhere in this town of 5,000 people it's possible to walk to the store. For a town this size, it's much more than I expected. What a nice experience!

During our first few days in town we've been dodging rain showers to get out and see the local attractions. Over the course of three days we got out to see most of the famous covered bridges -- five of them that are original. Built in the early 1880's, most by Benton Jones, they are substantial wooden structures that have lasted over 120 years. In those years almost all bridges were made of wood and weather was hard on them -- usually lasting about 10 years before major work or replacement was necessary. The idea of the covered bridge was that it's less expensive to maintain a roof that protected the bridge than to replace the bridge itself. So the hard-working, frugal, people of Madison County decided to pay a little more for covered bridges that would last much longer and be a better deal in the long run. They're about 15 feet wide -- wide enough for two lane horse traffic, but probably only a single lane for farm equipment or cars. All of these bridges have been replaced by modern bridges that by-pass the original structures, which are open these days to pedestrian traffic only. There is one bridge, the Cedar Bridge, that was rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by arson a few years ago, that's possible to cross with a car for the experience.

There aren't many of these things left. See them while you can.



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