One Saturday morning George and I departed from my driveway with unrivaled expectation in our search for quality covered bridges. One existed within a half day’s drive that could not be matched for size in the entire state, with the bridge spanning a river at a distance of more than 400 feet. Most of the covered bridges we tracked down and photographed had lengths somewhere in the 100 to 150 feet range.
The town closest to this bridge was quite small, and we estimated the population to be somewhere near 500. As we approached the town we viewed what appeared to be the remains of another town, long vanished, with only some foundation stones or concrete slabs remaining. The town itself, called Stump Bottom, perched on a hill, high above the river. The old town rested in a flood plain, with evidence that recent floods had inundated many places.
A recent coat of red paint graced the gargantuan bridge, which was in immaculate condition, in spite of the fact that it had been bypassed and a new two-lane concrete structure had taken its place at some point. People were in the bridge when we arrived, and it appeared as if some event was going to transpire, which piqued our curiosity.
George parked the car per our custom, and we sought some of the local plebeians in order to strike up a conversation and acquire some teaching concerning the location’s unique lore. A woman exited from the bridge, apparently giving orders to drones inside.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” interjected George as she approached us. “We’re curious. What’s going on in there?”
The woman wore her hair up on her head, but strands hung down all around her, giving her an unkempt appearance. She was extremely busy, either by the nature of her work or because she wanted to appear busy.
“Yes, yes?” she answered impatiently. “What do you want?”
“We want to find out what’s happening inside the bridge,” said George.
“Oh, yes, the bridge. You’re not from around here, are you? No of course not, because you’d know what’s going on. Since you asked, we’re preparing for our annual Flood Celebration later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go. There’s still so much to do.”
She sallied forth to a building across the street, giving orders to everyone she met along the way.
“Looks like Medusa’s in charge of this Flood Celebration,” I said. “I wonder what a Flood Celebration is?”
George shook his head, then replied, “Maybe they’re descendants of the Egyptians and worship the flood, like the Egyptians did with the Nile. You know, that flooding gave them all that fertile soil so they could produce an abundance of food.”
“I don’t really think that’s it,” I said chuckling.
An ancient man with a stubbly, white growth of whiskers, wearing a broad brimmed hat, and a blue-striped shirt with checked pants, sat on one of the large stones that comprised the approach to the bridge. He worked his gums as he looked around at the workers, but never said anything.
“If he can talk, I’ll bet that’s the one we want to talk to,” said George, and we ambled our way in his direction, having to stop twice to avoid collisions with people carrying armfuls of fold up chairs.
“Hello,” I said, hoping he heard me. When he turned clear eyes in my direction, I repeated with some volume, “Hello.”
“Howdy, young fella. Escoe Pheeters’s the name,” he replied. “Don’t worry, fellas, I can hear just fine. You don’t need to talk loud.”
After George inquired as to the nature of the Flood Celebration, Escoe Pheeters adopted the look of a schoolboy, and we knew it was a topic he would relish relating, so he obligingly commenced unraveling the tale of the Flood Celebration.
“The year was 1933. Back then the town was down there,” he pointed to the abandoned site we had passed through earlier. “Nobody lived up there at all,” he twisted his arm towards the top of the hill. “Every year we flooded down there. You see how little of a bank there is with the river? It could rain for half an hour and people’s yards would be underwater. Don’t know why everybody was so ignorant as to build the town down there.
“But I suppose when Stump Bottom was settled people built their dwellings right along the river out of necessity, close to a water source and all. But by 1933 people should’ve known better. It flooded every blessed year. People never seemed to learn I guess. They just kept repairing their homes after each year’s damage.”
At this moment Gorgon Hair dropped down in a whirlwind from the other side of the street and interrupted us and spoke to Pheeters. “Escoe, you remember what you’re supposed to say tonight, don’t you? Do you need me to give you a script?”
“Mercy, Wanda,” he upbraided her. “I’m 86 years old and I’ve said the same thing for the last 79 years. You think I’m going to forget it this year just because you’re in charge of the thing? You young people think us old-timers are just plain stupid. I’d made my speech nearly 35 years before you were even born. Run along, of course I know what I’m going to say.”
Chastised, the woman we now knew bore the appellation Wanda, scurried inside the covered bridge and found some different underlings to issue orders to.
“She’s a sweet girl, she really is,” said Pheeters with a twinkle in his eye. “I asked her grandmother to marry me but she refused. She’s taken too much on herself with this here festival, that’s all.
“Now, back to what I was telling you. People around here didn’t have no more sense than to keep living down along the river, even knowing that one day a big flood was going to break all their hearts and probably take a few lives. And that’s exactly what happened and why the whole town moved up the hill.
“Sunday morning, March 5, 1933, was when it all happened. Nearly everyone was in church—church then was called Stump Bottom Community Church, called Covered Bridge Community Church now. I was there with my ma and my pa, my five brothers and two sisters. I was the youngest, just six years old at the time. Hated going to church mostly, but liked it when they had picnics and such.
“The church had this preacher then by the name of Noah Hammonds, and he was the best hell, fire, and brimstone preacher ever walked the face of this earth, and that’s a fact. It had been raining for five straight days, coming down in buckets, so to speak, and people’s yards were already small ponds. The preacher was real agitated this day and was working up one of his best sermons ever. He weren’t fifteen minutes into it when Earl Babcock—he was in charge of the town’s water and was in town hall this day keeping an eye on things—he come barging in through the church doors and told everybody to run for their lives because a flash flood was heading our way.
“Panic set in naturally. People didn’t know where to go, and so a lot of them headed for the covered bridge. Don’t know why, they just did. I guess because the bridge had withstood everything nature could throw at it over the years. Many went inside, but others ran to their homes.
“Somebody looked out one end of the bridge and yelled, ‘There’s a wall of water coming down!’ Sure enough, it came through, plumb up to the bottom of the bridge. Everybody was crying and screaming and yelling they were going to die.
“Somehow I climbed up into a window to look at the water, and I slipped and fell out. My dad caught hold of my suspenders and held on for dear life. I was mostly in the water and fighting like anything to get back in, yelling and crying and screaming.
“The preacher, he got a bright idea right then. He ran over to the window and asked me if I’d like to be baptized, if I’d like to be guaranteed of going to Heaven because it looked like I was going to perish. I really couldn’t hear him, but I said yes, and he directed my dad to dip me down in the river, then pull me straight back out.
“The raging river continued at that height for over two hours and kept us all in doubt concerning life and death, and the preacher got all worked up and held a regular revival meeting. He told the people the story of Noah and the flood, and how only Noah and those with him in the Ark survived. He said it appeared that the bridge would likely give way at any moment, but he himself was confident, as Noah in the Old Testament was, that he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
“The preacher hammered away at the captive congregation, telling them they could have security too, if they would only get baptized and be assured of their eternal place. That day everyone in the bridge got baptized, even if they’d been before. People didn’t want to die, but they felt a peace if the bridge got washed away and them with it. There was an old fashioned gospel hootenanny after the water subsided and everyone knew they were going to live.”
George interrupted and a somewhat skeptical look flashed across his face. “That’s amazing. Obviously your dad pulled you back in, but how long did you have to stay out there, and how did the preacher safely baptize everyone?”
Pheeters looked him squarely in the eye. “Don’t you doubt me, young man. Everything I said is the truth. But to answer your questions, Dad couldn’t pull me in for over an hour. He was afraid my suspenders were going to break, so he didn’t put much pressure on them by pulling me. Eventually he got a grip on my pants and pulled me back in. Haven’t been in the water since. Never even gone swimming. Don’t even take baths, just wash myself up real nice.
“Now about him baptizing everybody, someone—I think it was Harvey Nightsong—had a strong rope in the back of his truck, which he had pulled into the bridge. They got it out and tied people on, one by one, and dunked them in the river. They had six men holding the rope so no one would fall in and perish, and of course they anchored the other end to the truck bumper. It was the best day that Stump Bottom Community Church has ever experienced. Most of the people who got religion that day have stuck it out, too. Most of the people are now dead, but they faithfully went to church every Sunday after that day.”
“So the town—?” I said.
“Washed clean away. All that went to their houses died,” Pheeters replied. “Twenty-seven souls lost their lives that day, but not a one who went to the bridge.
“And that’s why we’ve held what we call the Flood Celebration every year. We’re remembering those who died, but also remembering the work this bridge did in saving our lives. Two iron bridges washed completely away a little down the river, and a third was so damaged they had to tear it down and build a new one. But these covered bridges were built to last.”
George and I each looked into the bridge. It was long and dark, but men were stringing lights inside. Chairs were being set up and what was obviously a church-like service was going to transpire later.
“The town moved up the hill where it should’ve been all along,” said Pheeters. “Pity people couldn’t see it sooner and it took a disaster to open everyone’s eyes. You guys staying around for the memorial service?”
George and I looked at each and shrugged our shoulders.
“Sure,” I said.
“Yep,” said Pheeters. “This bridge has served us mighty well. Probably isn’t a boy around here who hasn’t had his girlfriend in a car parked in this bridge. State bypassed it about 10 years ago. We protested but it weren’t any use. We keep it up to remember how it saved us.”
The service was simple but effective. Wanda flitted about the entire time and could not have heard five words. Escoe Pheeters repeated his lines for the 79th straight year and never missed a syllable. There were few dry eyes in the crowd. George and I determined we would return to this place next year.