The Great Depression is a time in our country’s history that holds much fascination for many people. Our father grew up during the Depression, and he related a few things about how tough times were and about the effects of widespread gambling and control of entire cities by unsavory elements.
George had visited a particular bridge in a county not too distant, about an hour’s drive, and he wanted me to see it and photograph it. On this visit we made a connection to the Great Depression era, one that we will never forget, and one that put us in an uncomfortable position.
The particular bridge—Swan’s Creek Covered Bridge—was not a large span, just a little over 100 feet, but it was in immaculate condition, even though its location was rural. George drove through the bridge and pulled off the side of the road, leaving me to exit the vehicle in weeds up to my hips. This did not concern George, for he left the car and stepped directly on the pavement.
“Did you bring anything to wipe off with?” he inquired, referring to our numerous cases of chiggers and other things that made us itch after our excursions. I looked at him and laughed, which he returned. We never brought anything that would protect us from nature, and we usually suffered for days afterwards.
Most of these covered bridges, at least the ones that are not miniature in length, have approaches to them that rise, meaning the automobile must ascend before entering either end. A house sat in a gully off to the right, and an old woman in an old, dirty dress with mussed hair sat on the front porch. The house was little more than a shack that appeared as if it had not been painted in decades, the growth around the house was out of control, and in general, the house looked as if it were only days from ruin, standing like the House of Usher.
George waved in his most amiable post office counter employee manner, but the woman did not acknowledge him, which was rather unusual compared to most of the people we had encountered in rural areas on our travels.
“Maybe she’s blind,” I whispered, but George did not hear me because he suffered from the condition of all Burton family members—we are aurally impaired.
George then turned to me and attempted to whisper, “Maybe she’s blind,” but it was not really a whisper since people who have difficulty hearing frequently talk loudly, maybe so they can hear themselves. In this case, George’s whisper likely could have been heard over the sound of a passing semi, had one been passing.
“I ain’t blind!” spouted the woman. “And I ain’t deaf! Just didn’t feel like waving.”
She talked loud enough even for us to hear her, so we walked down the slope and to her porch. She made no effort to prevent us, but I visually searched around for her gun nonetheless.
“Hello,” yelled George when we arrived. “We’re here to take pictures of the bridge.”
“You don’t have to yell,” she replied. “I think I can hear better than you. You boys must be from the city. Only city boys would be interested in taking a picture of a bridge.”
“Well, I like photography more than bridges,” said George, holding up his camera. “Bridges are good objects to photograph.”
“I’m just along for the ride,” I added. “We’re brothers.”
“I can see that plain enough,” she said. “So you like bridges?”
“This is a pretty good one,” replied George. “It’s in really good shape, has a fresh coat of paint on it, and I can get a pretty good perspective on it.”
“We do keep it up. That we do,” she said. “This bridge has been around all my life…my entire life. You can see right up there at the entrance it tells the year it was built—1877. Been talk about building a new bridge and tearing this one down. They say we need a two lane bridge. But people put up such a protest they decided to keep it up and not build a new one. A new one wouldn’t last as long as that one anyway.”
I introduced George and me, and she gave her name as Doreen Loevhardt.
“Have you lived here long?” I asked. “I mean in this house?”
“I’m 86 years old,” said Doreen. “My pa built this house in 1905. He wanted to marry my ma, but her parents wouldn’t have any of it until he was established, so he bought some land and built the house and started farming. I guess that satisfied ma’s parents because they married in 1909 and I was born in 1910. Born right here in this house, haven’t lived a day anywhere else my entire life.”
“You don’t have any family?” inquired George.
“None living. I had three sisters and four brothers, but they’ve all passed on. Lost my favorite sister Lula just last winter. She was the last one. I never married…”
A sad, distant look ran across her face.
After an awkward pause, George said, “I think we’re going to take a few pictures and be on our way. It’s been nice meeting you.”
As we turned she said, “No, no, don’t go yet. You boys have time for a story?”
“Sure,” said George with a chuckle. “Always have time for a story.”
“Have a seat then,” Doreen said, and we deposited ourselves on her steps, most of which needed replacing. “I’m getting old and have no friends and as I said no family left. Oh, I have some nieces and nephews, but hardly know any of them by name. They never came around when they were growing up. I was always kind of known as the Old Maid aunt, crabby and not wanting anyone around.
“I am feeling my years, and to be frank, I believe I may be departing this world soon. There’s a story I want to tell someone—I guess to clear my conscience. Would rather tell it to strangers than someone from around here, so you’re it. You boys have to promise me you won’t say a word about this until I’m gone. Do you promise?”
George and I shrugged our shoulders, and then George said, “OK, we agree.”
“Then I’ll tell you. Mind, no one has heard this story, ever. Not even my brothers and sisters. I’m the only living soul who knows the truth.
“The year was 1930, I was twenty years old. It was the Great Depression and times were very hard. There was a lot of organized crime—the mobs, you know. We felt the effects of gangsters even in our part of the state, not a place you’d think they’d be interested in. A lot of farmers lost everything, and there were so many people out of work you couldn’t believe it. No jobs, no money, nothing. Somehow Pa held onto the place, though I don’t see how. I’ve often thought he somehow got involved with a mob, but I can’t say that for certain. He always said he believed there was hidden treasure around there, like a gold mine or something, and maybe he found a little bit to pay the taxes, I don’t know.
“There was a young man who interested me, and he came calling on occasion. John was his name. Pa didn’t particularly like him, but he didn’t forbid him seeing me. I desperately wanted to leave home, get out of this place and move to a city, where I could experience life, have some fun, and get married. John seemed like he was going to be the one who would take me out of here.
“But he got involved with a mob—I don’t remember which one, hadn’t wanted to think about it—but they had influence in the county and grew in power. John told me he ran errands for them. I suspect the errands was running money from their drugs, prostitution, and gambling operations. Used to be a big casino in the county, right in the county seat. You won’t get anybody around here to talk about it, though. People denied it even when it was here. Had the local and county politicians in their pocket, along with the police.
“I talked to John about getting married, but he kind of squirmed around about it. Said he wanted to establish himself first. I don’t know, maybe he wanted to take a bigger part in the mob. Maybe take over local operations or something. But he kept putting me off.
“Still, he called for over a year, and I thought I was starting to break him down. Finally he hinted we’d get married, but he wouldn’t set a date, but that didn’t concern me because I figured it was just a matter of time.
“Everybody around knew John was working for the mob. Pa never said anything, but I could tell he didn’t like it when John showed up. I didn’t care what people said about me running around with him because like I said, I wanted out.
“One of the runners had made out with a bunch of the mob’s money, but hardly anyone knew about it—I didn’t. It was nearly seventy-five thousand dollars. I know he wasn’t involved because at the time the money apparently was stolen, John was right here at the house, talking to Pa for a good long time, and then later sitting on the porch with me.
“The next night John didn’t show up at the house at the time he had promised, so I hitched a ride with someone driving by and went to town to look for him, hoping he hadn’t gotten into trouble. As I said, at that time I knew nothing about the stealing of the mob’s money. The news hadn’t gotten around yet. I knew he hung out at a place called the Lucky 7 Club, which was a place to dance, drink, and gamble.
“Sure enough, when I went inside, there he was, sitting in a corner with a floozy named Sadie Dunston. Sadie weren’t her real name, just what she went by. She was a prostitute and floor worker at the casino. It was obvious that John and Sadie were more than friends by the way they were acting, and more than once I had already found lipstick on his shirt, which he always had an explanation for.
“I thought we’d have it out then and there, and when I confronted him, he told me straight faced that Sadie was the girl he was going to marry and he had no intention of marrying me. Said he never had any intention of marrying me, and in fact he was at that time living with Sadie. She got all smart with me, too, but I belted her one right there in front of everybody.
“I got escorted out and hitched a ride home. I was devastated. I didn’t care if I ever left this place again…”
George put his hand on her arm when she paused. “That’s a sad story. I’m sorry,” he said.
Doreen cried for a short while. “Sorry,” she sniffled. “Ain’t cried since that day. Never cared enough to cry. But with my time running short…”
George and I looked at each other, at a loss for words.
After about two minutes she said, “Just wait, boys. That ain’t the end of the story. That’s not the part I really wanted you to hear. That’s only the story leading up to the real thing.
“I went out on the porch and decided to stay there all night. I thought maybe John would come by and tell me it was all a mistake, that he really was going to marry me and take me away. You know how people talk themselves into such things.
“About two o’clock in the morning I hear a car coming down the road, and I’m thinking it’s John. Sure enough, he comes through the bridge and pulls in the drive. And who’s in the car with him? That tramp Sadie.
“John said he just came around to pick something up, then he would leave, but I stepped in the house and grabbed Pa’s gun, the one he always kept behind the door, and I came out and told him to get and to take the tramp with him. She also got out of the car and together they started walking towards me. I lowered the gun and they took off walking real fast, didn’t even try to get back in the car, and I followed them into the bridge.
“John tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally he turned around and explained again that I had been mistaken the entire time, that he’d never promised to marry me, and that Sadie was the one he loved. And then she said—I’ll never forget the words as long as I live—she said, ‘Why would he want you? You’re just a farm girl, you’ve got no class, and you don’t even know how to act like a woman. John could never marry anyone like you. You’re ugly and don’t even know it.’
“Her words ignited something inside me, and I killed them on the spot. Cut ‘em down with the shotgun. Their blood was all over the floor. I went and got his car, drove it to a place about a mile or so away and ran it over a cliff and walked back here.”
George’s brow creased. I knew he was thinking the same thing I was—this woman’s going to kill us before we leave.
“I think we’d better be going—“ George attempted.
“Don’t be a fool,” said Doreen. “I ain’t going to hurt you. I already told you I only wanted to clear my conscience before I die.
“Let me finish. The next morning their bodies were discovered. Naturally the police came and investigated. They came and asked everyone in the house the same question: Did you hear anything last night? I told them I’d heard a gunshot, just as others did. No one got out of bed because hearing gunshots in the country is nothing unusual. The police later discovered the car, and then I heard their version of the story.
“They knew about John’s involvement with the mob, probably because they were on the mob payroll as well, and they had already heard about the missing money and figured John had taken it. They concluded that the mob had caught up with him and brought him out here and executed him and Sadie. That was the end of the investigation.
“I think if they’d have asked me straight out if I knew any other information, I would’ve confessed. I was prepared to go to prison or even get executed from the moment I did it. They never asked because they didn’t need any other information, so I kept quiet.
Doreen paused, then she looked around her land, out into the fields that had gone unplanted for many years, and the places where trees had taken over and filled up what once had contained corn or soy beans.
“This land ain’t been worked in the last twenty years, ever since my brother Everett died,” she said. “He and my brothers never really worked it themselves, just shared it out to people. I ain’t got any use for money. Been living off my government check for over twenty years. Don’t have many expenses, just food and utility bills. I got a boy from town does my shopping and runs to the bank for me, and another one cuts my grass a couple times a year. So this farm ain’t much use to me. Now the nieces and nephews are going to get rich when I die. Not from me, but from this land. They’ll sell it off piece by piece and make a subdivision out here, a real nice once. They’ll get a whole lot of money out of this place, all six hundred and twenty-seven acres.”
Doreen brought a stern gaze into our faces.
“Now you boys, you promised me you’d keep quiet about this until I’m gone. You still good for your word?”
We said nothing, only nodded our heads, and then we left, took photos of the bridge, and drove home, talking nearly the entire way about Doreen’s story.
Three weeks later George read in the paper that she had died. We debated if we should tell the information we knew, but decided against it, knowing would make no difference one way or the other.
A few months later, though, an event happened that surprised us, even though it did not change our minds. The house went to the nieces and nephews, and they decided to tear it down. Under the floor of one of the rooms, they found over sixty-eight thousand dollars.
George and I speculated that John had actually stolen the money and hidden it in the house, probably with the father’s consent, and that Doreen’s execution had saved the mob the cost of his elimination. We surmised that Doreen’s father had decided to use the money to save the farm. George did some research a short while later about the father and discovered that he had died within a year of John, making it likely that he had never told his family about the money, and it had sat under the floor for over 65 years.