Today, the South Perkasie Covered Bridge faces another fight for its life after record flooding on September 1, 2021. In the next few weeks, experts will assess the bridge’s condition. Below is a story I wrote in 2019 about our bridge’s special legacy.
Dr. Anderson M. Scruggs liked to send poems to the New York Times, which featured reader submissions in the 1930s. He taught at Atlanta Southern Dental College in Georgia but loved writing poetry about rural life based on his childhood in West Point, Georgia, a small railroad town on the Chattahoochee River.
Scruggs, in particular, loved covered bridges. By 1932, many covered bridges from his childhood were disappearing as Georgia’s state highway department demolished them and built modern steel replacements. That didn’t stop Dr. Anderson from questioning why this was happening.
“Only the country folk, whose careless tread endears a dusty road, can ever know the peaceful, clattering joy of rude planks spread above a drowsy creek that gleams below,” Scruggs wrote. “Yet there are soulless men whose hand and brain tear down what time will never give again.”
Scruggs’ poem soon became popular nationally as other state highway departments were eliminating covered bridges. By 1940, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier publicly questioned Pennsylvania’s strategy of mass covered bridge demolition. Publisher Leon Lowengard reprinted Scruggs’ poem and then told readers that he recalled it as he stood with his grandson at the former site of a covered bridge on the Tuscarora Creek.
“I suppose its removal was necessary, but I personally am sorry that this and many another old covered bridge like it are being removed. They are so typical early American in this day of turmoil and change that I would like to hang on to them to preserve them, even though it may be necessary to direct traffic over a new and wider bridge at a new site,” Lowengard wrote. “There is an atmosphere about them that conjures up pictures of peaceful, and perhaps happier, days and quieter ways that may not come this way again.”
A similar debate was underway in Bucks County just outside Philadelphia in Perkasie, a small Upper Bucks County town much like Scruggs’ West Point, Georgia. In 1938, local residents pressed county officials to repair two covered bridges, including the oldest remaining one in the county: the South Perkasie covered bridge. Instead, the county spared the South Perkasie bridge but demolished Steeley’s covered bridge two miles east of it. A local postman, Andy Schuler, suggested moving the South Perkasie bridge to a newly built Lenape Park to save it from a seemingly unavoidable fate.
A generation later, Schuler would help lead that effort. At the urging of Perkasie’s Borough Council, the county commissioners in October 1957 condemned Bucks County’s oldest covered bridge. The commissioners gave the Perkasie Historical Society nine months to move the bridge if it desired to preserve it, a seemingly impossible task for a small local group with no funding.
Moving an intact covered bridge for posterity’s sake was a novel idea. Covered bridges had been moved before. Henry Ford bought a covered bridge in 1937 in western Pennsylvania and had it moved to his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1949, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont moved a bridge onto its grounds. At least three other covered bridges were moved by well-funded private groups or government officials before 1958 nationally. In all of these cases, the bridges were taken apart, shipped to their new homes and reassembled, with little publicity.
The South Perkasie bridge situation was different. Local citizens funded the move, managed by the home-town Historical Society, to preserve the bridge as a “shrine” in Lenape Park. Children went door-to-door seeking donations. Bucks County’s own Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Protective Association vocally disapproved of the County Commissioners’ threats to demolish the covered bridge if it wasn’t moved. In fact, Protective Association leader Hal Clark lobbied the county commissioners for the extra month needed to get the bridge moved safely.
The local newspapers and radio covered the controversy for months and local television crews covered the event when the historical society moved the bridge over an eight-day period in August 1958. A photo of the bridge lifted by a crane became the national Associated Press photo of the day on Saturday, August 23, 1958, appearing in newspapers from Oregon to Texas to Georgia.
On the surface, it seemed — as in the mythical covered bridge in Scruggs’ poem — it was the “country folk” of Perkasie who saved the South Perkasie covered bridge from the “soulless men” who condemned it.
In hindsight, the fight to save Perkasie’s bridge reflected social and cultural trends building for decades. Locally and nationally, the efforts to save covered bridges from extinction represented a rejection, at least in part, of government policies that preached everything new was good and the old was just a remnant of horse-and-buggy days. The pro-bridge forces also had silent allies who definitely were not country folk and by most accounts were soulless men; they came from Madison Avenue and understood the powerful feelings that covered bridges evoked in the American populace. After World War II, advertisers deployed covered bridge imagery as a symbol of wholesomeness to sell homes, cigarettes, automobiles, whiskey, beer and most importantly, Coca-Cola.
While the Bucks County commissioners won a court decision to condemn the South Perkasie covered bridge, they never had a chance in the court of popular opinion. Covered bridges had become part of American popular culture, partly through the shared memories of people who grew up with them but also through their regular promotion in the arts and mass media.
After the South Perkasie covered bridge relocation in August 1958, the Bucks County commissioners supported covered bridge preservation and embraced the covered bridge as one of the county’s official symbols along with William Penn’s image. Pennsylvania state highway officials, however, were not as gracious with the covered bridges they still owned. They still planned to demolish the two closest covered bridges to Perkasie: Mood’s Bridge and Sheard’s Mill Bridge. However, a new state covered bridge preservation group formed just after the Perkasie bridge move confronted state highway officials, who begrudgingly (and belatedly) fixed the two bridges instead.
Back in August 1959, Hal Clark spoke at the South Perkasie Covered Bridge dedication ceremony, which was attended by local leaders, two county commissioners and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “The Perkasie Covered Bridge project helped to bring brought thousands of dollars of favorable publicity to the Perkasie Community and Bucks County plus an augmented stream of well-paying tourists, “ Clark said. “Fifty years from now the descendants of those who helped preserve this bridge in Lenape Park will bless your memory.”
That memory, Clark said, was “the bridge’s legacy as a ‘kissing bridge,’ a tunnel of love and a good place to save a load of hay on a rainy day. It carried a sign reading “$5 fine for any person riding or driving over this bridge faster than a walk or smoking segars on.’ It was a community center where affairs of state were settled, gossip exchanged and circus posters studied and it was a fine place for the kids to fish in its shade. In one way or another it had a part in the great days in history, the Mexican War, Civil War. elections.”
Dr. Anderson Scruggs could not have written a more fitting description about why people love covered bridges today and why the South Perkasie Covered Bridge could last another 187 years, if people wish for it to happen.