Ohio’s Pioneer Covered Bridge “Collectors”
The late Richard Sanders Allen was one of America’s prominent covered bridge historians and an early editor of Covered Bridge Topics. He wrote an article in 1945 on “covered bridge collecting.” In it, Allen recognized the important link between photography and “covered bridgers,” pointing out that many enthusiasts started from behind the viewfinder of a camera. But he went beyond that narrow focus to emphasize that the hobby had links with many “kindred” disciplines: geography, history, engineering, biography, carpentry, masonry and wood studies, as well as with those interested in the life and mannerisms of an earlier day.
So how did Ohio’s covered bridge collectors get started? The first “official” body was the informal group of interested individuals organized in 1941—with John Diehl as chair—at the Ohio State Museum. Intended to be statewide in scope, it may have been limited by its very name, the Ohio Covered Bridge Committee. It remained an informal body whose numbers never seemed to grow very large. Still, as the state’s initial organization, the committee served the essential function of locating and publicizing covered bridges by producing a series of statewide covered bridge maps based on the model of an Ohio highway map and created under John’s careful and precise guidance in 1953, 1956, 1961, 1965, 1967, 1970, and 1972.
Ohio’s first covered bridge “club” was conceived as a chapter of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges (NSPCB). That group had been organized in Boston in early 1954. Among its charter members was the Reading, Massachusetts, resident Charles Wilson, a sales engineer with the Quaker Chemical Products, who later became a NSPCB officer and director. Late in 1957, Wilson moved to Euclid, an eastern suburb of Cleveland. But if it were not for a manufacturer’s rep living in Cleveland Heights named Alfred Dreyfoos, that first Ohio group might never have been organized. An avid photographer, Dreyfoos picked up a copy of the 1956 Ohio Covered Bridge Map. While using it, he met others with similar interests and joined the NSPCB. After inquiring about fellow Ohio members, he was referred to Wilson. Dreyfoos contacted him and suggested organizing a club but initially found Wilson hesitant, thinking Dreyfoos expected him “to shoulder all the work,” an experience he had had in the past. Dreyfoos expressed a willingness to help and suggested that Wilson get a list of national members from Boston and contact them. Wilson agreed and sent them a questionnaire. He also convinced the editor of the Cleveland Press to write an article discussing the intention to organize a local covered bridge group.
The first meeting was held on October 14, 1958, and Wilson was named president and Dreyfoos the treasurer. Monthly meetings were held in a bank’s community room in South Euclid and attendance grew rapidly, nearly overflowing the room. In this early stage, President Wilson identified county engineers as the group’s “implacable enemy,” and hoped to arouse interest in preservation that might help “convert” these public officials. He pointed to examples in New England where wooden bridges had been underpinned with new steel beams as well as cases where bridges had been marked and disassembled for relocation to public parks. In the spring of 1960, the group began producing a newsletter called Buckeye Bridge Briefs. Interestingly, meetings were often held in conjunction with local historical societies around northeastern Ohio. Clearly, the group saw their purview as the entire state. Articles in the newsletter covered all of Ohio, and both the newsletter masthead and the group’s first stationery featured images of bridges from Fairfield County.
Helping to provide a statewide perspective for the northern Ohio chapter was longtime covered bridge researcher Tom J. Malone, who lived on a farm in western Columbiana County (35-15-96 at Beaver Creek State Park was, following his death, named for him in 1971). He organized a two-day tour through his home county in June 1961. As reported in Buckeye Bridge Briefs, a total of 85 people, ranging in age from 93 to 21 months—said to just be learning how to even say “covered bridge”—and hailing from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida participated over the two days. Most of those attending on Saturday were members but Sunday included many who had read about the tour in local newspapers. As Rick Allen had suggested in his “collecting” article, the tour hosted camera bugs, botanists, bird-watchers, rock hounds, and at least one steam engine enthusiast. When the latter insisted that the caravan stop long enough to photograph a nearby farmer’s traction engine, the owner graciously agreed to fire up the boiler to provide some smoke. It resulted in a 40-minute stop until those less enthralled with the delay laid on their car horns to recall the sidetracked men and resume the tour. One car ran out of gas but its occupant was rescued by a fellow driver who finished the tour and then returned to the abandoned car with a tank of gasoline. Later that same year, the officers decided to change the name to the Northern Ohio Covered Bridge Society. It remained active until officially dissolved in 2009.
The Southern Ohio Covered Bridge Association (SOCBA) had a similar background to the northern group. The founding members initially discovered a common bond in covered bridge photography, and, when they assembled at Anita Knight’s home in Zanesville on March 31, 1960, decided to solicit the NSPCB to identify other Buckeye Topics subscribers that would likely support preserving Ohio covered bridges. After mailing 110 letters throughout southern Ohio and receiving 25 responses, the group decided to organize. It was, however, distinct from the northern Ohio group in one important way: they were motivated to preserve an actual covered bridge. The farmer who had acquired the 1876 Salt Creek Cover Bridge from Muskingum County officials offered to sell it and 2/3 acre of land for $300. Fund raising for the purchase began immediately, and by the summer, all but $85.80 had been collected. In light of the group’s involvement with a real bridge, much of their early activities centered around making money and completing work on the bridge itself. Sixty individuals assembled for the first summer picnic at Salt Creek on July 17, 1960, and it has been an annual event ever since. A deputy sheriff led the group’s first tour of Greene County a month later.
Hoping to increase both the exposure of the group and its credibility, SOCBA established “honorary” memberships. The first such individual was famed covered bridge historian Richard S. Allen, who was soon followed by Cincinnati’s John Diehl, Preble County’s Seth Schlotterbeck, the former Union County engineer N. W. Llewellyn, and Smith Bridge Company researcher and collector Eldon Neff from Springfield.
The early minutes for the SOCBA indicate that the two groups, northern and southern, frequently worked together. Numerous individuals had memberships in both and individuals from each spoke at the other group’s meetings. Hallie Jones from Columbiana County was named as a “go-between,” and joint tours were held in Columbiana and Ashtabula counties in the 1960s. A joint committee was formed between the two organizations in 1969 to develop guidelines for preserving a covered bridge whenever a public entity abandoned it.
Seen from today, a controversy in 1966 has a contemporary feel. A proposal had been made to build a concrete span with a covering at Mohican State Park. The SOCBA immediately expressed their opposition to it since “it would not be an authentic covered bridge.” The heated discussion at the meeting focused on sending “a vote of censor” to the state engineers. Interestingly, this “modern-bridge-with-a-roof” remained a viable concept for another decade. I was similarly incensed when state funds were later directed towards a “fake” covered bridge at Mohican instead of preserving genuine historic bridges. Then working in the state historic preservation office, I tried to redirect my anger to something productive, and began a series of articles on various historic iron, stone, concrete, steel, and covered bridges throughout the state that ran in the quarterly Ohio County Engineer’s Magazine for many years.
In 1996, during a major structural restoration of the Salt Creek Covered Bridge through a federal-grant-in-aid, the name of the SOCBA was changed to the Ohio Historic Bridge Association and papers filed to officially define it as a nonprofit.
David A. Simmons
These 22 individuals attended the first meeting of the Northern Ohio Chapter of the NSPCB at the First Unitarian Church in Shaker Heights on October 14, 1958. Charles Wilson is at the left rear.
The officers of the Southern Ohio Covered Bridge Association gathered at the summer picnic in July 1961. Kneeling (r to l) are: M. L. Young; James A. Moore; Eldon M. Neff. Standing (r to l) are: Floyd T. Patterson; Mrs. Patterson; Mrs. Moore; Anita Knight; Miriam Wood; Bob McManness; and Louis Paxton.