Barbara Anderson and her husband John Cantlin lived all over the Northeast during their careers as engineers. But, five years ago when it came time to move from their last post in Chicago as they faced an early retirement, they chose to relocate to Blount County "because of the quality of life here," Barbara explained.
Now as Chair of Blount County’s 25th Annual Covered Bridge Festival the last weekend in October, Barbara presents a unique vision for showcasing the county’s three remaining covered bridges and natural beauty, as well as the many activities planned.
"We wanted to maintain the features that have always been popular, certainly the downtown Oneonta Arts and Crafts Show on Saturday. We wanted everything to be fresh, so we’ve added many new events as well," Barbara said.
Blount Chamber of Commerce President Charles Carr agreed, "This is certainly a tradition, an opportunity to highlight the natural beauty of our county, which is one of the reasons we’re one of the fastest growing counties in the state. There’s a family of four moving to Blount County every day, partly because of our natural beauty."
Tours of the Covered Bridges will not be offered this year, according to Barbara, but maps with directions to the three locations will be available throughout the festivities and the bridges are easy to find. The stately old bridges certainly are among the stars of the event!
Horton Mill Covered Bridge is located just to the left off Alabama Highway 75 about five miles north of Oneonta. The current bridge, built in 1934-35, replaced an older one built around 1895 that served a grist mill and small community about one-eighth mile downstream.
Horton Mill was known as the highest covered bridge above water (75 feet!) still in use in the Southeast until an accident closed it temporarily last year. It will hopefully be repaired and reopened to traffic when grant money is available. Visitors can still enjoy touring the bridge, using the picnic area and walking path.
Swann Bridge is located one mile west of Cleveland, just off Alabama Highway 79, and is the longest in the South with a 324-foot span.
The Easley Bridge is north of Oneonta (on U.S. Highway 231 between Oneonta and Cleveland) at Rosa (turn on the road beside Pine Grove Baptist Church). It is the shortest of the bridges at just 95 feet but may be the most picturesque of them all. It is a town-type bridge 14 feet wide and just 18 feet above the river. It was built in 1927-28 shortly before the other two.
All bridges are clearly marked with signs along the main highways.
I was privileged to interview Zelmer Tidwell in the mid-1980s about his tenure as construction foreman of 12 of Blount’s covered bridges, including the three still standing. Mr. Tidwell passed away in 1987.
Tidwell remembered all the timbers and materials for the bridges were hoisted from the ground by ropes. Beams and latticework were held together by large bolts with the nuts on the outside to keep them from being stolen! Absolutely no large machinery was used back then.
Only one man was seriously injured during Tidwell’s tenure as bridge superintendent. The late Julius McCay, one of the carpenters, lost his footing while atop Swann Covered Bridge and fell. He was unconscious for several hours but soon returned to work. Legend (as recounted in the book ‘Country Roads’ by Carolynne Scott) has it many of the other construction workers’ lives were changed by the beautiful prayer McCay recited while he was unconscious!
Tidwell said another man was injured when he jumped from the spot he was working directly onto a nail protruding from a board.
"He had to lie down on his back and let us pull the nail out," Tidwell remembered. "But he wouldn’t go to the doctor because he didn’t want to miss work. He just soaked it in some kerosene we had there on the job. He was back at work the next day. It didn’t swell or give him much of a problem."
Tidwell said it took a crew of 15 men one-and-a-half months to complete Horton Mill Bridge including the time for construction of the off-center stone support pillar.
"I got $3 a day for being boss of the whole thing," he remembered. "I paid the men $1.75 a day. That was big wages for a carpenter then—it was during the Depression."
Tidwell said he used dynamite to "pit out" the large boulder in the river to provide a level foundation for the bridge’s laid-stone support pillar.
The 42,000 board feet of lumber required for Horton Mill Bridge’s town-truss style was bought at $17 per thousand. All work was done strictly, securely and solidly "by hand" without benefit of power tools.
When I asked him about the deep gorge spanned, Tidwell simply said, "I just threw me a couple of braces across. We had to build it part of the way and then move on up and work on the other."
That work ethic is exemplified even today by the numerous volunteers who make the Covered Bridge Festival so special, Barbara explained.
"The highlight for many visitors and residents is the downtown Oneonta Arts and Crafts Show, this year on Saturday, October 25. Hundreds of vendors will line the streets, and an antique car show and motorcycle show will be featured on the southeast side of downtown.
New this year is even more expanded children’s activities. One of the main stages will focus on family-type entertainment, Barbara said, and New York Life will be working with local firefighter/paramedics and police officers to provide children’s safety information, games and other booths on the western end of town in the Regions Bank parking area.
It will feature fingerprinting and DNA for Child Identification from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; fire safety at 10 a.m.; bicycle safety and demonstration at 10:45 a.m.; hunting safety at 1 p.m. and more. There will be fun giveaways throughout the day.
The main downtown stage will feature Elvis-impersonator Robert Glass; Tom Pricket and Chris Green; the Oneonta High School Audition Choir; Bama Blu Grace playing gospel bluegrass; Jordan Harrison; Three Generations and more.
There are two ways to start Saturday. One is with the 5K and Family Fun Run beginning at The Gym parking lot (on Alabama Highway 75 across from Oneonta City Schools) which has become a premier event for runners from throughout the Southeast. For more information on the run, call (205) 625-5060.
Or you can gorge yourself at the annual Pancake Breakfast sponsored by the Blount County Children’s Center from 6:30-10 a.m. at Lester Memorial Methodist Church at 108 3rd Avenue East. Adults pay $5 and children 12 and under $3 and there’s always great entertainment there!
The Friends of the Locust Fork River are sponsoring their annual River Walk on Saturday from Swann Covered Bridge to Powell Falls and back. Their members said the fall foliage is usually "glorious." The hike is moderately difficult and takes about three hours roundtrip. Those going can meet at the Tonka Shell (Highways 160 and AL 79 in Cleveland) at 9 a.m. or Swann Covered Bridge at 9:30. For more information, call (205) 909-6231.
The Blount Quilter’s Guild’s Annual Show will be Friday and Saturday at the Quilter’s Cabin at Palisades Park (follow the signs on U.S. 231 just north of Oneonta). There’s a $3 admission and all quilters are invited to enter for cash prizes! For more information, check their website at www.blountcountyquiltersguild.com.
The Miss Covered Bridge Pageant will be held the weekend before the Festival and is a prerequisite to the Miss Alabama Pageant. There’s also an annual golf tournament held each year at Heritage in Oneonta, this year on October 23.
More information about these and other events can be obtained by calling Aimee Dobbs at the Blount Chamber office at (205) 274-2153 or by going to their website at www.blountoneontachamber.org.
Barbara (who is a Blount real estate agent and whose husband now teaches at Susan Moore High School) noted the weekend "gives us an opportunity to show off what we have here in Blount County. It’s always a lot of fun and people come and are amazed at the beauty and what all we have to offer."
Barbara concluded, "You know we’ve been here five years now and I still wake up EVERY morning glad this is where we live!"
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.