One thing you learn if you hang around very long is that things change.
I’m thinking in particular of a bridge – a covered bridge – the Stovall Mill covered bridge near Helen, Ga.
I like covered bridges. I always have. There’s usually something vaguely magical about them, and it’s just the thing for an incurable romantic like me.
With a length of just 33 feet, the Stovall Mill Bridge crosses Chickamauga Creek in White County (there’s another Chickamauga Creek in northwest Georgia with an altogether different claim to fame). It’s the smallest of Georgia’s remaining historic covered bridges.
The first time I saw this covered bridge, and that was decades ago, it was shaded by an enormous tree. I remember taking a few pictures of it (how I wish I could find those negatives). But nowadays the tree is gone and the bridge’s interior has morphed into a gallery of graffiti.
Why do some people feel a compulsion to spray paint names and dates on old historic structures? Beats me. Somebody once called it part of the “new urban ecosystem,” whatever that means. But I like the old and graffiti-free ecosystem just fine.
Still, it’s intriguing to read what those graffiti writers write. You learn things when you do. On a recent visit, for example, I learned that John C. loves Susan M., or at least he did at one time. I wonder if they made it? Did their affection for one another survive? Maybe. Maybe not.
But the bridge which immortalizes their one-time devotion is doing okay – even after all these years and graffiti notwithstanding.
Constructed in 1895, it was actually the second covered bridge to be built there. A previous one, built in the late 1800s, washed away a few years before the current one was built. In 1917, Fred Stovall, after whom the bridge is named, purchased the water-powered mill operation, which included a grist mill, sawmill, and shingle mill. The mill dam and mill washed away in a flood in 1964, but you can still see the remains of the old dam.
Like all good historic structures, the Stovall Mill bridge has several claims to fame and is appreciated by many – among them film buffs, who are quick to point out that it was featured in the 1951 movie “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain.” The film starred Susan Hayward and William Lundigan.
The thing you hear most often, though, is that the bridge is haunted.
“Yep, haunted,” said the elderly lady I met there the other day. “You cross that bridge after dark, and you’ll hear babies crying. And horse-drawn buggies too creaking while they cross over. You ever heard ‘em?”
I had not.
“Well, I have,” she said. “Scary, sure enough.”
There was a pause.
“Don’t you worry about those haunts now?” I asked, not really knowing what else to say.
“Naw, not right now,” she said. “It’s daytime. But after dark....”
Of course, all covered bridge legends are not so spooky. I remembered one that I like a little better: You’ll hear that if a young woman makes a chain of clover and strings it across the entrance to the bridge, the first person to break the chain will prove to be her one true love.
I remembered another one too. It’s said that if you drop a penny through the cracks between the deck planks and make a wish before it hits the water, then the wish will come true.
I had a fishing trip coming up, a trip with a good friend to a place where there are big fish.
I felt in my pocket. Sure enough, there was a little bit of change.
I fished out the coins and pulled out a penny. Then I walked along the bridge until I found a good gap between the floor boards. Below it, the creek flowed quiet and peaceful.
Looking around to be sure no one was watching, and feeling a little silly, I bent down and dropped the penny and wished fast – fast! – before the copper coin landed with a tiny splash and disappeared.
Well, a couple of weeks later, on the way back from that fishing trip, we stopped at the bridge for a few more photos. I walked out onto the little span one more time. I found the gap where I’d dropped the penny, all the while thinking about that enormous trout that I’d landed just a few hours before.
Covered bridge magic?