Take one lonely farm housewife, a war bride from Italy, making the best she can of her life. Send her family off to the Illinois State Fair and stock show, leaving her with a weekend all her own. Add in a wandering photojournalist who has come to Iowa to photograph the famous covered bridges of Madison County for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Suddenly in the early nineties, the author, Robert James Waller, finds himself famous and his book, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, one of the most popular in the history of American publishing.
A 1995 movie was made from Waller’s book starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. A 2014 musical was also based on the book and produced on Broadway, running for one hundred thirty seven performances. Although the Broadway production has closed, other productions including a national tour and international performances continue the show’s life. The movie, the movie soundtrack and the original Broadway cast recording of the musical are all available on DVD. The book is still available as well.
When, on our way home to Colorado from Wisconsin, we saw a sign announcing the real, non-fictional bridges of Madison County, there was nothing for it but to take the advertised exit and see what we could see.
Winterset, Iowa is a small town of 5,190 residents as of the 2010 census and is also the county seat. Founded in 1849 and located thirty miles from Des Moines, the state capital, it houses the John Wayne Birthplace Museum and hosts the existing covered bridges in the county.
The movie of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was filmed in Winterset as were two other movies, COLD TURKEY in 1971 and CRAZIES in 2010. The fact that it was the birthplace of John Wayne and located in the midst of the famous bridges helps with the tourism. Each year the town hosts the Covered Bridge Festival held the second weekend in October.
In Waller’s book, the photographer Robert Kincaid is searching for Roseman Bridge to finish his assignment for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Francesca, the lonely wife, shows him where the bridge is located. The bridge then continues to be an important element in the book. We found the Roseman Bridge to be one of the more difficult of the bridges to locate.
Covered bridges exist in Asia and Europe as well as in the Americas. In the early days of our country’s existence, it has been estimated that we had as many as 12,000 covered bridges. By 1950, that number had dropped to 1,344. The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges came into being that year and is still an active organization today.
By December 2015, the number of covered bridges dating from the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century had dropped below the 1950 estimate to 991. Currently, 34 states maintain “authentic” covered bridges, meaning these were built in either the 19th or early 20th century. The main reason for constructing a covered bridge is a practical one, having nothing to do with the romance of the structures. Wooden bridges not protected from the elements have only a ten to fifteen year life span. Over time, even the covered bridges require maintenance and renovation. Today, there are numerous modern and charming covered bridges built for a variety of reasons, but these aren’t considered or included in the count of the original bridges.
According to Wikipedia, two covered bridges make the claim of being the first built in the United States. Town records for Swanzey, New Hampshire, indicate their Carleton Bridge was built in 1789, but this remains unverified.”  Marshall, Richard G. (1994). “Carleton Bridge”. New Hampshire Covered Bridges: A Link With Our Past. Concord: New Hampshire Department of Transportation. OCLC 31182444.
In Philadelphia, a bridge built in the early 1800s on 30th Street and over the Schuylkill River is also a candidate for the first built in the New World.  Kopas, Virginia (30 March 2012). “Pennsylvania is among the tops in the number of covered bridges”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Archived from the original on 9 October 2012. Retrieved 9 October 2012.
Madison County, according to Andrew R. Howard in his book, Covered Bridges of Madison County Iowa, a guide, originally had nineteen covered bridges. His small guide has a bit of the history of each of the existing bridges, directions if you want to visit the bridge and suggestions for getting good photos of the bridges. The bits of history below are from Mr. Howard’s book.
When we turned off of the interstate and made our way to Winterset, Iowa, the numbers of bridges had dropped to six covered bridges. In 2002, Madison County almost lost another bridge .
In 2002, arson destroyed the Cedar Bridge, built in 1883. Fortunately, after several years of strenuous fund-raising, the town was able to rebuild and restore the bridge.
The Imes Bridge lists a little as if a strong wind could blow it over. Given its history of having been moved several times, this is understandable. Originally, built in 1871 to bridge Wilkins Ford on the Middle River, it was at first known as the Munger or Mills bridge. It was moved in 1887 to Clanton Creek and became known as the Imes Bridge. In 1997, it was moved yet again to its present location in eastern St. Charles.
The Holliwell Bridge was built in 1880 and for a time was a part of a main road through the area. All of the covered bridges have required maintenance and repairs over the years. The Holliwell Bridge was renovated in 1995 to the tune of $225,000.
The Cutler-Donahue Bridge originally spanned the North River eighteen miles northeast of Winterset, but was moved to the Winterset City Park in 1970. It is one of the easiest of the six Madison County covered bridges to find should you want to visit the area.
The Hogback Bridge was built in 1884 and renovated in 1992. It houses a board with the names of every person who worked on the construction of the bridge.
Our visit to Madison County. Iowa took place as we were on our way home from another adventure. Our limited window of opportunity to see the bridges occurred on a really miserable day with rain and drizzle limiting our viewing of these relics from the past. As we searched for and found the bridges, I couldn’t help but think of the book that had lifted these ancient structures into prominence. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY has been translated into 34 languages, according to a statement by the author. Not too shabby for a professor from Cedar Falls, Iowa.
After the enthusiastic reception of his book about the two lovers who were together for four days and loved each other for the remainder of their lives, ten years later Waller penned the “rest of the story” in his book, A THOUSAND COUNTRY ROADS published in 2002.