Music and the smell of fried chicken and roast beef filled the air of one Jackson County’s prized gems Saturday night as 300 people gathered at the Medora Covered Bridge for the eighth annual Dinner on the Bridge.
The sold-out event is organized by Friends of the Medora Covered Bridge, which works to preserve and maintain the country’s longest historic covered bridge at 430.4 feet.
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Lula Wolka, 81, can see that bridge from her house, but she attended the event to do her part with helping in the preservation of the bridge built in 1875. The bridge was built in nine months by Joseph J. Daniels at a cost of $18,124.
“Our world is evolving at such a speed that’s unimaginable, and we need to have landmarks to see how far we have come,” she said while standing in line to enter the dinner. “In Europe, they save everything. Here, we tear everything down.”
The bridge, which attracts between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors each year from around the country and globe, used to be a means of travel before it closed to motorists in 1973. A $1.3 million restoration project was completed in 2011.
Wolka remembers crossing the bridge and the uncomfortable task of passing someone.
“We used to pass people on this bridge, if you can believe that,” she said. “That was so scary.”
Her brother-in-law was manager at nearby Starve Hollow State Recreation Area, and she said he and his children would dive off of the bridge to swim in the East Fork White River.
“That’s scary enough,” she said. “They were good swimmers.”
Nick Walden, one of the committee’s dedicated volunteers, said he enjoys hearing stories like Wolka’s and said that’s what the event is about.
“I enjoy seeing these people get together and enjoy it all at the same time, and there are great memories of the bridge to share,” he said. “It’s great that everyone cares enough to come out and pitch in a little bit and support the bridge in any way they can.”
Walden spends time each week helping maintain the bridge and sharing information with tourists who stop by to learn more about it. The reality of the bridge attracting people from all around the globe can set in quickly, he said.
“One day, there was a couple from Australia and a couple from New Zealand at the same time,” he said. “What are the odds of that? But that’s how random it can be.”
Walden also gave a tour a few years ago to a couple from Floyds Knobs, Wes and Donna Griffin.
This year, the Griffins brought their instruments and provided music for Dinner on the Bridge. Wes strummed the guitar, and Donna accompanied him with an accordion and dulcimer.
“They were great,” Walden said. “It was great to listen to on the bridge.”
Walden said event volunteers help people find tables, take tickets, arrange items for sale and more. He said the event also is made possible by all of the businesses that donate items so the committee can raise additional funds at the event.
“They give so much to this cause,” he said.
Volunteers also are needed throughout the year, he said.
“If you know stories and you want to share them with tourists, then that’s something you can do,” Walden said.
The committee’s website, medoracoveredbridge.com, offers contact information for those interested in giving tours, helping maintain the area surrounding the bridge, work on the bridge and removing graffiti from its walls.
The graffiti is a problem that has occurred throughout the years, and it’s one of the reasons the committee hopes to invest in an enhanced security system and lighting to help discourage violators.
“Security cameras are a dream of ours because of the threat of this place being severely vandalized,” Walden said.
In past years, the committee has been able to purchase a zero-turn lawn mower to help keep the area mowed, but it remains focused on a security system.
“That’s just one of our main goals,” Walden said.
That would require getting electricity from a nearby electric pole to the bridge and the system itself with the cost of installation. That can add up to more than $20,000, Walden said.
Walden spent time at the bridge Sunday afternoon picking up trash and other debris from the event and said he couldn’t get much of it done because of the number of visitors to the bridge.
It attracts casual tourists and those who are looking to see as many historic covered bridges in the country as they can.
“And who could miss the longest one?” Walden said.