The best Sunday-afternoon drives with my grandparents involved going to see a “garage.”
That was my name for the covered bridges that we explored throughout central Ohio. As we walked or drove across them, we’d study how they were built, listen to the sounds inside them, and Grandpa would pick me up for the best view of the scenery.
My grandparents were with me in spirit last Sunday afternoon when I took the Union County Visitor & Convention Bureau’s self-guided driving tour to see six “garages” along the Big Darby Plains Scenic Byway. The 27-mile main route follows Darby Creek through North Lewisburg, Milford Center, Unionville Center and Plain City, with two side loops that add 22 miles to the journey.
Covered bridges got their start in 14th-century Europe, when wooden bridges were built to carry horse-drawn vehicles over streams and valleys in Switzerland and Germany. The bridges were covered to protect from the elements the triangular, interlocking timber-framed beams and braces, or trusses, which support the weight of the bridge and loads traveling across it.
Ohio’s first covered bridges were on the privately owned turnpikes that charged travelers a fee for using them. Many covered bridges spanned canals and other waterways. Viewed from the side, they look like barns.
In their heyday, there were over 10,000 covered bridges in the United States. By 1880, fewer were built because the wood supply was starting to dwindle and steel became the bridge-building material of choice. Today, there are about 700 covered bridges in the nation.
Union County has five historic covered bridges, all built in the late 1860s and 1870s by Reuben Partridge (1823-1900), a Marysville, Ohio wagonmaker and carpenter who built hundreds of covered bridges throughout Ohio. Four of Partridge’s bridges are still used as a part of the county highway system. The bridges are based on a “Partridge Block” truss design that he patented in 1872. After the advent of cars, “windows” were cut into the siding as a safety precaution to increase visibility; roofs or awnings over the windows provide protection from the elements.
At 64 feet long, the Spain Creek Covered Bridge is the smallest covered bridge in Union County. Dating from the 1870s, it crosses the spring-fed Spain Creek, which converges with the Big Darby Creek nearby. The windows and awnings were added before the 1930s. In 1988, the bridge was rehabilitated by constructing a bridge inside the covered bridge.
The Pottersburg Covered Bridge was built on North Lewisburg Road in 1868 to cross a creek, but in 2006, it was moved a mile away to sit on a multipurpose trail that is a converted abandoned railroad bed. The canopy was added in 1937.
When it was built in 1872, the Culbertson Covered Bridge spanned Treacle’s Creek on U.S. Route 36/State Route 4, two miles from Milford Center. In 1921, the bridge was moved to Winget Road, a dead-end road off the main road for the former village of Homer, which was known for manufacturing buggies. The bridge has a small runaround, or pull-off area, for farm equipment or vehicles too tall or wide for the bridge. In flooding, it can be six to ten feet under water.
The Bigelow Covered Bridge, also known as the Axe Handle Bridge, was built in 1873 over Little Darby Creek and was named in honor of Eliphas Bigelow, an early resident of Union County who built the nearby Bigelow House on the south side of State Route 161 in 1846. Renovated in 1990, the bridge features a bridge inside a bridge.
The North Lewisburg Road Covered Bridge spans Big Darby Creek, which was named after Darby, a Wyandot Indian chief. It was built in 2006.
The Buck Run Road Covered Bridge was also built in 2006 to replaces a steel bridge that was constructed in 1914. It is currently the longest single-span wooden bridge in Ohio and provides picturesque views of the Big Darby Creek.
Before it was settled in the early 1800s, the western part of Ohio contained about a thousand square miles of prairies. One of the largest prairies was the Darby Plains. This was some of the last land to be settled in Ohio, considered worthless because it was covered with water several months a year and then was subject to prairie fires when the soil dried up. Eventually, ditching, tiling and draining converted the wet prairie of the Darby Plains into some of the most valuable agricultural land in Ohio, with a level surface and rich soil that is excellent for growing corn and other grains.
What farmers didn’t plow, they used to pasture their livestock, and much of the expansive prairie soon disappeared. Today, remnants of the prairie are small, but you can see excellent examples of what the prairie would have looked like along the route as it passes century farms, historic homes and cemeteries.
Before the site became a powerline right-of-way for the Dayton Power and Light Company, the Milford Center Prairie State Nature Preserve was a significant prairie of the Darby Plain. Today, the preserve is home to over 50 different species of prairie plants, including big bluestem, royal catchfly, prairie dock, stiff goldenrod and gray-headed coneflower.
The Bigelow Pioneer Cemetery and Nature Preserve is located eight miles west of Plain City off State Route 161. The fields in this cemetery that was active between 1814 and 1892 have never been plowed or grazed. Original tombstones still sit among waist-high prairie grasses and prairie wildflowers like royal catchfly, purple coneflower and rough-leaved goldenrod that were once abundant on the Darby Plains, but today are considered rare, threatened or endangered in Ohio.
The Smith Cemetery and Nature Preserve, two miles west of Plain City off State Route 161, is still home to a dense, waist-high patch of original prairie grasses often growing as much as eight feet tall. Wildflowers like big bluestem, little bluestem, purple coneflower, whorled rosinweed, wild petunia, stiff goldenrod, smooth aster and prairie false indigo continue to flourish in this protected area.
Guided tours of Union County’s covered bridges will be offered during the Union County Covered Bridge Festival, which will take place September 18-20. If you’d prefer taking a self-guided tour, download and print a map of the bridge locations and information about each of the bridges on this page of the festival website.
For more on covered bridges, read Covered Bridges: Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, by Miriam F. Wood and David A. Simmons; Ride Guide: Covered Bridges of Ohio, by Kurt Leib and Steve Butterman; The Covered Bridges of Ohio: An Atlas and History, by Miriam Wood; and Big Darby Plains Scenic Byway Including Union County’s Covered Bridges, a 2008 compact disc audio driving tour offered by the Union County Chamber of Commerce.