WEST UNION, Ind. — A visitor asked Forest and Clara Jane Berrisford exactly how many people lived in this historic hamlet.
Forest, 72, squinted, his brow furrowing like the rows of corn planted out back. "Well," he said, there's my father-in-law across the road. . . . "
"Joe and Dorothy," Clara Jane, 69, added.
"Right, Joe and Dorothy," Forest said. "That's three right there."
The Berrisfords ticked off 13 names. West Union, population about 13, sits in the sleepy cornfields of western Indiana, alongside the longest covered bridge in the nation.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont may have a few, but rural Parke County, Ind., with 34 covered bridges, is the self-appointed "Covered Bridge Capital of America." It may be the only place in the state where basketball takes a back seat to anything.
But from Oct. 9 to 18 everything in Parke County takes a back seat to the annual Covered Bridge Festival. An estimated 500,000 people will descend on the area, about 60 miles west of Indianapolis, to sample homemade country classics ranging from persimmon ice cream and sassafras tea to square dancing, quilting and doll making.
On the courthouse square in Rockville, the centerpiece of Parke County's 10 rustic communities, beans are served by the kettleful and chickens are barbecued over a grill half a block long.
But the main item on the menu? The old covered bridges (daily tours are available).
The oldest bridge--132-foot Crooks Bridge over Little Raccoon Creek--was built in 1855. It made good country sense back then. Why leave the wooden planks vulnerable to rain and snow? In making the bridge sturdy and resilient enough to support two walls and a roof and the horses and equipment that would pass through it, Hoosier farmers left a structure that now accommodates huge RVs from faraway retirement villages.
"The state of Indiana isn't known for much, but we got more of these bridges right here in this county than anywhere else in the country," says Jack Golden, who runs the Sugar Creek Campground with his wife Marge. The campground is actually by Parke County's Green Creek. "We thought this was Sugar Creek," Marge says. "Oh, well, it's close enough."
Maybe it's an esoteric distinction, having all these covered bridges. But not to the Hoosiers in Parke County, not when an estimated 750,000 people will visit this year, including the half-million during the 10-day festival.
"Sure, even people from California come," says Dee Smith, executive secretary of the county's tourism office.
Being that it's in the hinterland of Indiana, Parke County is a cheap find. A room at the Parke Bridge Motel on U.S. 36 goes for $26.25 a night. For about the same price you can rent a room in a private home. "We're a friendly place," Smith says. "Take you right in."
First, however, you might want to get lost for a while in the green dales that meander toward the old covered bridges. Serenity blankets the crisp fall air as you roll along through acres and acres of tall, gold-crested corn.
A sign over America's longest covered bridge, the 315-foot West Union Bridge, advises to cross at a walk. "It refers to horses," Smith says. "A running horse can do more damage to the flooring than any car."
Bridge design, in fact, centered on the horse. The covered bridge is rustic red and resembles an elongated barn. "That way the horses would go through it without getting spooked," says Smith.
The bridges were also the site of other horseplay. They were called "kissing bridges," for the young couples who stole away inside them.
Dancing and Scripture
Clara Jane Berrisford smiled shyly as she served a visitor iced tea. She said she didn't remember stealing away with Forest inside the West Union Bridge, although there were square dances there. "We had Sunday School inside," she said. "We might wait out a storm there.
"Oh, we had a rope swing hooked to it. The boys would dive into the water from it. Not the girls."
And the hummingbirds with their long, sweet-sipping bills have always hovered inside the bridges.
"Got into a friend's apricot tree once," Forest says of the birds. "Killed every apricot in that tree. Heck of a bird. Heard they fly up under a goose's wing and kind of hitchhike. Don't know how true it is."
Clara Jane remembered the doctor, Dr. Goldsberry, who had to come through the bridge in his horse and buggy to make house calls.
"He got killed on the railroad tracks," says Forest, a rumpled-looking man with a sanguine complexion and thick glasses.
"Hit by a train," adds Clara Jane, shaking her head.
Settled In to Stay
Her grandfather, Thomas H. Garrard, settled here in 1880. Clara Jane and Forest inherited the white clapboard house with 40 acres for corn and another 40 for grazing horses off Rural Route 1. Her father lives across the road. Son David lives just down the road. Their daughter Susan lives across the river. Their five grandchildren all live nearby.
"We drove to California in 1972," Forest says.
Clara Jane interjected. "1971."