PREBLE COUNTY — Imagine, if you will, several young boys and their dogs wading in a creek. The boys move slowly and in a grid-like pattern as they searched intensely for minnows and craw dads in the stream.
As many of you creek-waders know, on a hot, sunny day in the heat of summer, there is a two-fold purpose for you want to find the shady spots to catch your fishing bait. First of all, the shade provided a spot where you could get relief from the sun and this is also where the aquatic life made their way to stay cool. The best spot for the most shade was under a bridge and for me, it was under the Christman Bridge Covered Bridge located on Eaton-New Hope Road just northwest of Eaton, Ohio.
As a young boy, I remember my brothers and I — and occasionally a neighbor or two — playing beneath the covered bridge. The covered bridge provided shade for our fun. I remember looking up and seeing this huge structure made by man that would appear to hover over us, protecting us from whatever came our way. The air would be filled with laughter and sounds of splashing water until we heard this far-off noise of a vehicle, getting closer and closer. When the vehicle’s tires hit the running boards on the covered bridge, all activities would cease and we would follow the direction of travel of the vehicle by the sound of the clamoring of the running boards.
My inquisitive, engineering mind was already at work. What made the bridge able to carry these massive loads across the stream as farmers transported their crops to market? Why did some structural members have to be so big and others relatively small? Why was the bridge covered? So amid splashing my brothers, skipping rocks, and looking for fish bait; I guess, unknowingly, I was being prepared for my life’s vocation of being County Engineer of Preble County, Ohio.
I spent many years in, under, and around the Christman Covered Bridge. It was a part of my childhood that I will never forget. Most engineers just look at the design of a covered bridge to see if the bridge is structurally sound enough to handle the design loading of the vehicular traffic. While others may look at the aesthetics of the covered bridge to see if it blends in well with the surroundings. And there are those people who look at the historical significance of the covered bridge as it related to social and economic conditions of a certain time period.
When I look at a covered bridge, I can look at it with an engineering eye to see what truss design was used to support the loading and if it was an efficient form of design. I can also see how the bridge fits into its surroundings, i.e. the Hueston Woods Covered Bridge. I could always picture in my mind the bridge location and what it would look like to fit into the natural surroundings. I also enjoy the historical significance the bridge added to the culture of the time.
But the thing that interests me most and, I think it’s a major part of my personality, is what I call the “romantic” aspect of covered bridges. I love to hear people telling their individual stories about how covered bridges affect and, hopefully, enhanced their lives. I could listen for hours about how families used to take Sunday drives and dad would stop in the middle of the bridge and “toot” the horn. Everyone would just yell at the top of their lungs and then go on. Or some elderly woman holding her husband’s hand and relating the time she was first kissed by him while they were courting while stopped in a covered bridge.
All these stories had one thing in common. The people telling the stories always have smiles on their faces and you can tell it reminds them of joyous times of their lives. Thus, it brings a smile to my face and joy in my heart that I have had a small part in preserving the structural, aesthetic, historical and romantic aspects of covered bridges.
It is my intention in the next nine articles to share the above mentioned aspects of our covered bridges.
The next article will feature our most famous covered bridge — Roberts Covered Bridge. I will provide the reader with background on the construction and reconstruction to its present location in Eaton. Its historical significance to our area and a few stories that have come my way in the many years of my involvement with Preble County’s covered bridges. The next six articles will focus on the covered bridges built by Everett Sherman with the Childs truss design.
The Hueston Woods Covered Bridge will be the subject of the eighth article. The last installment will focus on the events surrounding the summer-long Smithsonian Traveling Covered Bridge Exhibit in 2007, the Second National Covered Bridge Conference in 2012 and my trip to China in 2013 to witness the signing of the historical Sister Bridge Agreement with our own Roberts Bridge, representing the United States, and the most famous covered bridge in China.
I’m very happy to share my experiences with you because as each of us get older we need to document the value of our covered bridges. It is my sincere hope that each of you will share a story with me about your covered bridge experience and that you will take time to help educate our youth about the importance of Preble County’s most treasured possessions — The Bridges of Preble County.
Editor’s note: J. Stephen Simmons is a retired Preble County Engineer. This is the first in a series of articles celebrating the “Year of the Covered Bridge” in conjunction with the Preble County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. For more information on Preble County’s covered bridges, visit preblecountypassport.com.