After reading “The Bridges of Madison County” in the early 1990s, we had the pleasure of meeting its author, Robert James Waller, at a book event.
The former business professor mentioned how thrilled he was when Warner Books agreed to publish his manuscript, and that both he and the publisher were surprised when the book became a New York Times #1 best seller.
The novel’s movie version starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep premiered in 1995 and much of the nation was once again fascinated with the book’s plot: the four-day affair of photographer Robert Kincaid and Italian war bride Francesca Johnson.
The book and movie brought notoriety to Madison County, Iowa, and its attractive covered bridges.
Visitors flocked to the small Iowa town of Winterset to experience the bridges, Francesca’s movie house and the restaurant where Robert Kincaid witnessed community scorn resulting from marital infidelity.
We first visited Madison County about 20 years ago during a return from a cross-country trip to the Northwest.
Following a short stop at Roseman, the covered bridge featured in the book and movie, we drove into town for lunch. Then we were off to Dyersville, Iowa, to visit the baseball field featured in the movie, “Field of Dreams.”
That was the extent of our visit to Madison County.
In planning this year’s mid-September Iowa visit, we scheduled a night in Winterset to allow time for visiting each of the bridges, talk to residents and stroll the town’s picture-perfect downtown square.
On the drive to Winterset from the Des Moines airport, we first sought out the 1800-era farmhouse depicted in the movie as Francesca’s home, only to discover a large “No Trespassing” sign inside the fenced grounds.
We later learned the home had been damaged in a deliberately set 2003 fire days before the annual Madison Country Covered Bridge Festival.
Disappointed, we set out for the county’s covered bridges. Rain was forecast for the following day so we wanted to visit all the bridges before checking into the Covered Bridge Inn for the night.
Between 1850 and 1900 about 100 covered bridges were constructed across Iowa. Most have been destroyed by floods, fire or demolition and only a few remain, including five in Madison County.
Until 2017, when it was intentionally burned, Cedar Covered Bridge was Madison County’s only remaining drivable covered bridge. It had been rebuilt in 2004 following an earlier 2002 fire.
Arriving at the site, we saw two large piles of burned timber. The county is raising funds to replace the bridge that is estimated to cost more than $800,000.
Our next stop was at Hogback, the county’s most recently built (1884) covered bridge.
The bridges were generally named for nearby landowners, but Hogback took its name from the limestone ridge that forms the valley’s west side.
Next on our tour was the county’s best-known bridge featured in the movie.
Roseman was built in 1883 and renovated in 1992. During the Roseman visit, we met a couple about our age. The female had wanted to visit this bridge for years and was happy to be there. Asked if they were planning to visit the other bridges she replied, “No.” Ah, the power of a fictional love story.
The Imes Covered Bridge has been moved twice and is now located in a park in the small town of St. Charles. It is the oldest of the covered bridges having been constructed in 1870-71.
The Holliwell Covered Bridge had a bit part in the movie. It was built in 1880 and is the longest of the covered bridges at 110 feet.
In 1970, on its 100th birthday, the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge was moved to Winterset's city park by a house-mover using a souped-up truck with an airplane engine.
Although it rained on-and-off most of the afternoon, we enjoyed seeing and walking through the bridges.
We were disappointed that none were any longer drivable and that several were no longer at their original location. To a degree, it seemed as if the bridges existed as movie props. Still, we enjoyed the day.
The following morning we visited the Madison County Chamber of Commerce and learned Robert James Waller wrote portions of his manuscript in a booth at the nearby Northside Café featured in the movie.
We decided to walk down the street and check it out. Sure enough, on the counter above the stools where Robert and the “troubled” woman sat were a mug, a white purse and a photo of the two.
We sat on the stools and thought of Robert, Francesca, the Roseman Covered Bridge and how lucky we are in our 48th year of marriage.
Kay and David Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. Read their previous columns at www.facebook.com/DavidKayScott. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.