116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WINTERSET — Racing around Madison County to find all six covered bridges in an afternoon is a delightful scavenger hunt that I don’t recommend.
Leave Cedar Rapids much earlier in the day and allow for about 2.5 hours to get there, then enjoy a much more leisurely day scouting out the bridges.
I felt like Van Helsing chasing the last vestiges of sunlight to make it to the southernmost Imes Bridge in St. Charles on Sept. 21. But I made it and still ended up with enough dusky light to get back around Des Moines and into familiar Interstate 80 territory by dark.
Someday I will learn not to fire up the computer “for just a few minutes” before leaving town.
Winterset: 163.5 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, 150.2 miles southwest of Iowa City
Covered Bridge Festival: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 9 and 10, 2021; with vendors, demonstrations, entertainment, George Stout events, Saturday quilt show, Sunday car show, covered bridge tours, pancake breakfasts, parade through town at 2 p.m. Sunday; details at madisoncounty.com/covered-bridge-festival-2/
Tourist information: madisoncounty.com/
Winterset — the center of your scavenger hunt — is an easy drive via Interstates 80 and 35. Finding the bridges requires a good map app on your phone. If you have a passenger, do not expect that person to guide you through all the scenic twisty, turny, roller coaster rock roads that lead to the bridges. One of you will end up alone at the side of a side road halfway through the day.
And yes, the bridges pretty much look alike, but the hunt is so delightful and the payoff is walking through pages of history, a 1992 bestselling book, the 1995 hit movie and best of all, a 2014 Tony-winning musical staged so beautifully four years later by Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids.
(Trivia: The 2013 pre-Broadway run starred Elena Shaddow as Francesca — the very same actress who mesmerized the recent Brucemorchestra throng. And of course, the novel was written by the late Robert James Waller, an Iowa native who wrote the book in 11 days during a leave from his role as dean of the University of Northern Iowa’s College of Business.)
Besides the bridges, Winterset is the birthplace of actor John Wayne and University of Iowa graduate and art teacher George Stout, leader of the World War II “Monuments Men,” tasked with finding and recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis.
Both men have been memorialized in feature films, and both will be honored during this year’s Covered Bridge Festival, held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, and Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021.
Events are happening all over town this weekend, but main venues include the courthouse square downtown, the John Wayne Museum, the Madison County Historical Complex and the Madison County Fairgrounds. A parade will wind through town at 2 p.m. Sunday, and covered bridge school bus tours are offered both days.
If you decide to explore Winterset and Madison County any other time, here are some highlights:
Download the map at madisoncounty.com/map-to-bridges/ to get the lay of the land. Colorful Iowa Byways signs also will help guide you.
If you use Exit 56 off I-35, Highway 92 will take you into Winterset.
But before you get to town, you’ll see a sign to turn left for the Holliwell Bridge. This can be the first stop on your scavenger hunt. You’ll end up on a gravel road, and when it’s not clear which way you should go at the fork, bend left at Norwood Avenue and Holliwell Bridge Road. (Sounds obvious, but it’s not clearly marked.) Keep driving forever, second-guessing yourself and your map app, but eventually you’ll find the bridge and lots of awesome photo opportunities.
It lies about 3.5 miles southeast of Winterset, and is a great introduction to these architectural treasures sprinkled around the county. Built in 1880, Holliwell Bridge now beckons pedestrians to walk across the worn planks; examine the crisscrossed wooden interior braces and the antique hardware; see the names and initials scrawled on the walls — and add your own; and to just soak up the beauty of the Middle River, which meanders into the Des Moines River near Carlisle.
It’s also the end point of the Middle River Water Trail, a 45-mile trail that begins at Middle River Forest County Park in Adair County. Signage by the bridge will explain the flora, fauna, fish and geologic history of the area, and offer recreation tips for paddling, navigating and fishing the river.
A metal marker documents the bridge’s history, and you’ll find out that at 155 feet, the Holliwell Bridge “is the longest covered bridge, and the longest remaining timber bridge in the state.”
Madison County’s other covered bridges, typically named for their closest residents, are the Cutler-Donohoe Bridge, built in 1870, moved to the Winterset City Park in 1970 and renovated in 1997; the 1883 Roseman Bridge, which figures prominently in the film version of “The Bridges of Madison County,” and is a fairly long but scenic drive southwest of town; the 1883 Cedar Bridge, pictured on the cover of the novel, also figures prominently in the film, was nearly destroyed by arson fire, rebuilt and reopened in 2019, and is the only one vehicles can drive over; the 1884 Hogback Bridge northwest of town; and the oldest remaining bridge, the 1870 Imes Covered Bridge, moved twice before coming to rest in 1977 over a ravine east of St. Charles.
For information, including details on guided tours, go to madisoncounty.com/the-covered-bridges.
In the late 1860s, the Madison County Board of Supervisors ordered the county’s longer, wooden truss bridges covered to protect the weather-vulnerable floor boards, which were more expensive to replace than the wooden shelters.
You’ll notice the bridges lean a bit to one side, a structural engineering factor related to stress of the load they would bear and slope for snow load. If you would like to know more — and make your brain hurt in the process — search online for “Covered Bridges and the Birth of American Engineering.”
On the map, you’ll notice “Francesca’s House (closed).” Do not waste your time going there (although en route, I did pass a tempting sign for “goat cuddling”).
The 1870 farmhouse made famous in the movie lies down a gated lane way northeast of Winterset — and is so closed that you can barely catch a glimpse of gray weathered boards and the red roof behind the overgrowth of trees and vegetation.
The site was closed to the public after an arson fire destroyed the back of the house in October 2003. It’s privately owned and guarded by a security camera, so if you make the trek, don’t even think of climbing the fence. Just turn around and go cuddle a goat.
The Duke’s birthplace and museum pay homage to the city’s most famous son. Marion Robert Morrison was born in Winterset on May 26, 1907, and died of cancer June 11, 1979, in Los Angeles.
His parents moved into the four-room home on the corner of Second and South streets in 1906. It remained a private residence until the Winterset Chamber of Commerce bought it in 1982. The John Wayne Birthplace Society was formed that year, the structure was restored to its 1907 look, and more than a million visitors from 50 states and 40 countries have toured it since then.
A 6,100 square foot modern museum was built nearby, with Wayne’s favorite leading actress, Maureen O’Hara, on hand for the 2013 groundbreaking ceremony. The facility opened on Wayne’s birthday, May 26, 2015, and a larger-than-life bronze statue, donated by his family, beckons visitors outside the building.
Front desk attendant Ruth (Elwick) Reed, who grew up in Vinton and moved to Winterset in 1968, said the museum now houses a $2 million collection of memorabilia, most of which came from Joseph Zuckschwerdt of Hollywood, Pa., who visits often and serves on the museum’s board of directors.
Among the artifacts are costumes, original movie posters, scripts, letters, sculpture, the original Irish horse cart from “The Quiet Man,” and one of Wayne’s last customized cars.
The museum also has a small theater showing a 20-minute look at his life and career, with comfy seats from Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The gift shop is full of souvenirs for all ages, from T-shirts, jackets and coffee mugs to puzzles, DVDs, books and cookbooks.
An addition under construction will double the facility’s footprint, making space for more items like a cannon from the movie “The Alamo.” Reed said the cannon is in a barn behind the birthplace, but will move to the museum when the new wing is completed next year.
Downtown is where you’ll find shops, eateries, a bakery, a quilt museum and a movie theater showing a first-run feature, as well as a vintage John Wayne movie. The majestic county courthouse looms large over the center of the square.
Across the street lies the Northside Cafe, where Clint Eastwood sat during the filming of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Sadly, the cafe is closed.
But I found a great lunch spot at Anything Sweet & More Cafe, 52 E. Court Ave., in a former bank building on the opposite side of the square.
Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, it features Italian and German and American comfort cuisine, reflecting proprietor Lisa Alessandro’s European heritage. Alessandro, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Vinsen, also can whip up a turista meal, allowing you to feed your inner Francesca.
The tables are close enough that my fellow diners struck up conversations around the room. They hailed from Boston, Phoenix, Omaha and Colorado, and most were Iowa natives back for a visit to an area they hadn’t explored.
Winterset City Park
Your scavenger hunt will take you to this 76-acre park at 300 S. Ninth St., which closes to vehicles in the winter. Not only does the park have a covered bridge, it also has a stone bridge where Francesca sat in the movie; a hedge maze; a large campground; shelterhouses; playgrounds; a log cabin; and the piece de resistance, Clark Tower.
Rising from the park’s highest point, the 25-foot limestone structure looks like a medieval turret or Rapunzel’s tower. It was built in 1926 to honor one of the county’s earliest pioneer families. A narrow, one-way roller coaster gravel road leads to the tower, where you can climb up for panoramic views of the Middle River valley. Some people hike to the tower, but don’t believe the sign that says it’s only one mile away. By the time you get there, I’m sure it will feel more like a million miles away.
And that’s actually the splendor of Madison County — you’ll feel like you’re a million miles and a century away as you discover the beauty down its long and winding roads.
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