As fall kicks into full swing so does the increase of tourism around the state. However, for some of these small towns, tourism is what allows them to stay afloat. Residents of Parke County say a 10 day covered bridge festival impacts their ability to financially function for the entire year.
Tucked in between corn fields and hidden down one lane dirt roads, the covered bridges are what sets Parke County apart from other rural areas of the state. It’s a quiet adventure today, hunting for the 31 bridges that dot the countryside, but you could call it the calm before the storm.
“Most people are really proud of their town. They’re proud we’re able to pull this off.”
“The reason why we have so many bridges – [the] geography is right for them but also the financial situation of a poor county like this really demanded that they keep what they have and make the best use of them,” says Jim Meece, a county commissioner and veteran of the covered bridge festival.
Meece has been attending since it began about 60 years ago. However, he’s not the only one who keeps coming back. Two million people – that’s a half million more than attend the Indianapolis 500 – will flood the area over the next ten days for the largest covered bridge festival in the country.
“And most people are really proud of their town,” Meece says. “They’re proud we’re able to pull this off and do this kind of a thing and have 10 days in October that you can just show off what you have and where you live and what people like to see.”
Farming is the main economic driver here, but right behind that? Tourism.
“So what this festival does for us – the estimate is about $15 million is left in Parke County after the covered bridge festival,” Meece says.
Aside from the bridges, one of the most highly trafficked spots during the festival is Bridgeton Mill. It looks like an image you might see on a postcard. The four story red mill sits on the bank of the river that flows from the waterfall under the Bridgeton bridge. People come here for the flour, purple grits and the view.
Mike Rowe is the owner of the mill and bridge. He’s helping with customers and making flour in the middle of his shop when we arrive. Rowe depends on the profit he makes during the festival to sustain his family for the whole year.
“It’s unbelievable. There’s no way my wife and I could do this without that festival.”
“It’s unbelievable. There’s no way my wife and I could do this without that festival,” Rowe says. “Miller had to give me half the money to buy the darn place.”
He says the foot traffic from his mill feeds into the antique shops and ice cream parlors that sit idle the other 50 weeks of the year. In addition to brick and mortar businesses, it’s estimated that more than 700 vendors come out to sell homemade goods and crafts. Some locals even rent their properties for the festival.
“People renting out their front yard, barns and stuff. It’s just a sea of white canopies everywhere,” Rowe says. “Over here there’s a 90-acre field over there and the farmer’s daughter started out with like 15-acre parking lot then it’s 20 then it’s 25. I think she’s up to about 30 now and another guy over here he just tripled his and all together we’ve probably had I’d say about 120, 130 acres of parking. On the weekend we run out of room.”
Out of the 31 covered bridges in the county, all but five are open to regular traffic. Most of the bridges date back to the 1800s and the county maintains them. The state helps some. The county gets about $1,200 per bridge each year for preservation, but Meece says that leaves a lot of the burden to the county, and some residents question whether they’re worth maintaining.
“It’s always tough to sustain or justify sustaining stuff like these covered bridges certainly unless, of course, you understand how economically significant it is to the people that live there,” Meece says. “Parke County would really be suffering I think if we didn’t have that $15 million of new money ingested into our economy every year and if we didn’t have these bridges you wouldn’t have that festival. So I think people realize it’s all tied together.”
The festival runs through October 22.