The theme for this year’s Madison County Covered Bridge Festival is “The Bridges are Calling,” and Winterset resident Pat Nelson says she hopes that “calling” means getting the annual event back to its roots.
To get a better understanding of what the Covered Bridge Festival roots are, one has to go back more than 40 years to the spring of 1970 when a group of men in the Winterset Kiwanis decided on doing a community betterment project by cleaning up the areas by the famous bridges.
“The bridges were always popular with artists and photographers, and they would come from all over at various times of the year,” says Nelson. “The group cleaned up around the areas of the bridges and planted shrubs and bushes as a way to further enhance their beauty.”
Nelson’s husband, Jim, was one of the men in that group.
“I guess I was just thinking out loud about how nice it would be to have some sort of celebration featuring the bridges,” says Nelson. “The more I talked, the more ideas kept coming out about what the celebration should be like.”
The idea of the celebration, says Nelson, was based around having activities associated with the era of when the bridges were built. Music, food and crafts would be from the late 1800s.
“It wasn’t going to be enough,” Nelson says, “to simply sell items from that era — such as a corn silk doll. In order to sell the doll, the vendor would have to demonstrate how it was made before they could sell it. We wanted that theme to run throughout the festival.”
The other issue was the importance of including every town in Madison County (East Peru, Bevington, St. Charles, Earlham, Patterson, Truro and Macksburg) in the process.
Nelson says they didn’t want to make this just a “Winterset” thing, and the goal was to make the celebration something everyone in the county could feel like they had ownership in. At some point, the talking stopped about what the festival should be like and a decision was made to put the ideas into motion.
“I guess I just pestered them too much about all this,” Nelson laughs. “We came up with the second Saturday in October as the day to hold the festival because the bridges are all out among the hillsides with lots of trees surrounding them. It only seemed natural to have the event in late fall when the leaves were changing and the hillsides would be loaded with color. Plus, it was only going to be a one-day event because we didn’t think it would be all that big.”
The process of getting the activities and vendors lined up for this single day event began. One of the first activities proposed was having a spelling bee for the children, Nelson says, as well as letting the locals showcase their talents on stage throughout the day.
Other activities included a Civil War reenactment, storytelling and blacksmith shop demonstrations.
The vendors, Nelson says, were from “every club and organization imaginable in Madison County.”
“And they all agreed to go by the honor system of donating a portion of their profits back to the Kiwanis — I think it was either five or 10 percent,” says Nelson. “The rest of the profits the vendors made went back into their own community betterment project accounts.”
After getting the activities and vendors squared away, the next task was to attract visitors from outside Madison County.
Nelson served as publicity chairman for the upcoming “one-day” event. She wrote up press releases concerning the inaugural Covered Bridge Festival and sent them out across the United States, she says, complete with photographic slides of the bridges.
“I knew newspapers liked artwork to go along with the story,” she says.
Nelson says no one knew how big the crowd would be for the inaugural event.
“I know the Kiwanis borrowed $500 from the Chamber of Commerce to mint the first festival coins to sell to those who did show up,” she says. “Even the folks at the Chamber, as supportive of the event as they were, didn’t expect the festival to be successful enough to get their $500 back. The Chamber simply considered it a donation, not a loan.”
To the surprise of everyone, nearly 10,000 people showed up for the festival that first year.
“We made enough to not only pay back the Chamber, but to print more inaugural coins up,” Nelson says. “I think nearly everyone was astounded by the response.”
To put it in perspective, this was 22 years before Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” became a best seller, and 25 years before actors Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep starred in the movie adaptation of the novel.
Nelson says the novel and the movie increased the interest in the festival, obviously, and there have been as many 40,000 people attend the festival in past years.
“It was amazing the publicity the festival was getting,” says Nelson. “There were full-page stories written about it in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.”
The Kiwanis were in charge of the festival for the first 17 years. During that time, the festival had grown from a single- to two-day event. The Madison County Chamber has since taken over the festival operations.
This year’s 44th Annual Covered Bridge Festival will be the first that Madison County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heather Riley has chaired.
“I moved to Winterset about eight years ago, and I just became executive director for the chamber at the end of May of this year,” she says. “To me, the Covered Bridge Festival is the best way to showcase Madison County.”
Riley also co-chairs the event with Kendell Kerns. This is also Kerns’ first time in charge.
“The one thing I learned quickly is how great the volunteers are and how the community comes together to make this a successful event,” says Kerns. “A lot of people have donated their time and talents to make this one of the best festivals in the state.”
Both Riley and Kerns say the events people have grown to love will be featured again this year such as the car show, the quilt show, the parade and the spelling bee. There will also be a “Passport to the Past.”
“That’s where children get a ‘passport,’ and they take it around to the various demonstrations to get stamped,” says Nelson. “Once they get their passport filled, they can turn it in for a prize. It is a good way to teach the children a little bit of the history as well as making it fun for them.”
Riley says one of the new things added to this year’s activities is a scavenger hunt.
“It is sort of like an ‘I Spy’ game as well,” says Riley. “People will take their list and look for letters on buildings or signs in the downtown Winterset area. They have to fill in all the letters to make the sentence in order to win.”
As of press time, the Winterset Lions Club has not chosen a Grand Marshal for the festival’s parade. A King and Queen of the event, however, have been chosen.
And it is none other than Pat and Jim Nelson.
“When we came up with the concept of the King and Queen, we wanted to make it different than the usual king and queen contest where young people were chosen,” says Nelson. “We wanted people in the communities in Madison County to nominate an older couple, or an older man and woman, who has done a lot and contributed in their communities over the years.”
When asked what does the King and Queen of the Covered Bridge Festival do, Nelson says with a laugh, “Walk around acting regal.”
“Actually, we hand out awards to the winners of different activities such as the spelling bee, which is one of my personal favorite activities,” says Nelson.
Not that interest in the Covered Bridge Festival has waned all that much over the years, but interest level may pick up again in January of 2015 when a musical of Waller’s “Bridges of Madison County” novel will hit the stage on Broadway in New York City.
“We tried to get one or two of the actors from the musical to attend this year’s festival,” says Riley. “Everyone from the musical cast and directors were excited about that possibility, but we just couldn’t make it work within their timeframe.”
Still, says Riley, the festival is shaping up to be a great event.
“The main stars of the festival are always the bridges,” she says.