I made a pilgrimage down Swede Holler (or "hollow," if you must) on Sunday afternoon to say goodbye to an old friend, Wheeler Bridge --- a venerable structure that with its predecessors has spanned White Breast Creek in Liberty Township southwest of Oakley since Lucas County's earliest days.
So far as I can think, this was --- until the county closed it --- the last functioning iron bridge in Lucas County.
It's a little presumptuous to call this bridge my friend --- we weren't intimate --- but all my life I've enjoyed taking that left-hand turn at the end of the Swede Holler road, creeping across the creek on it, then heading up to the next road over and back into town on Poverty Ridge. Or wandering up the valley to the north and coming out west of Oakley.
I don't really know why the county closed it, but am guessing that the old bridge failed inspection and was deemed a hazard. Supported by tall wooden pilings driven into the creek bed, it became obsolete and most likely unsafe. In addition to barricades, a few planks have been removed from either end to reinforce the point --- "don't even be thinking about trying to drive across" --- even though the remaining deck appears to be in good shape.
I can't imagine that the bridge will be repaired, reopened or replaced. Even though this once was the White Breast crossing on the main road to Indianola and Des Moines beyond, snaking northwest out of Chariton, it is located now on minimum-maintenance dirt that connects, just west of it, to more minimum-maintenance dirt. Beautiful country, but unlikely to be high on the county supervisors' list of transportation issues.
I can't tell you how long the old bridge will be allowed to remain in place, but can tell you a little about its history.
It is called "Wheeler" after Samuel D. Wheeler, who settled near here in 1856, and his son, Armstead, who later owned the big farm that straddled the creek here into the early years of the 20th century.
This probably is a renewed and rebuilt version of a 60-foot span built here for $685 in 1898 --- then heavily damaged in a storm that occurred during late May, 1899. That storm sent a huge tree crashing down on the bridge, forcing the pilings on either end down and dumping part of the iron superstructure into White Breast waters. The bridge was fished out and repaired.
The bridge and its predecessors were landmarks in the neighborhood southwest of Oakley. Baptisms frequently were held in a pool here near the bridge during the 1880s and 1890s.
Oakley Methodists were in charge during May of 1889 and offered options. The newly converted who wished to be sprinkled were served at the church; those who wished to be immersed gathered here with friends, family and neighbors as witnesses.
During August of 1895, a tent-based tablernacle meeting series complete with hellfire and damnation preaching was conducted on flat ground west of the bridge --- conveniently near baptismal waters.
During summers well into the 1920s, the Wheeler Bridge woods were a popular destination for picnics and camping --- a short trip out from both the big city (Chariton) and the village (Oakley). Similarly, ice skating parties utilized the frozen White Breast here during the winter. Many fished from the bridge, too.
This also was a location conveniently near timber for portable sawmill operations --- the Nussbaum mill was moved here during February of 1912, for example.
Both traffic patterns and the nature of recreational pursuits have changed now that the 21st century is upon us --- and Wheeler Bridge and its history are passing from view.