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INDIANA IS THE COVERED BRIDGE CAPITAL OF THE U.S.

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Most people drive across Indiana hell-bent-for-leather and bound for other places: Chicago, St. Louis, Denver.

But a growing number of savvy travelers are exiting the interstate to explore a scenic corner of Indiana known for its covered bridges. In a four-county area, there are more than 40 of these picturesque canopied bridges, more than anywhere else in the country."Covered bridges were built to last. That's why they're still around," said Wes Wilson, the archivist at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

The oldest dates from 1830; the newest was built in 1920. All are on the National Register of Historic Places and each has its own quaint charm and architectural idiosyncrasies.

A "No Swimming" sign adorns the Narrows Covered Bridge in Turkey Run State Park. Boxcar Bridge is just that: two box cars welded together and paved over. A sign at Mill Creek Bridge tells people "Cross this Bridge at a Walk" - referring to the pace of a horse and buggy, not pedestrians. The 315-foot West Union Bridge in Parke County is the longest.

There's even one that's said to be haunted. The story goes that a traveler was mugged and killed on the picturesque bridge at Cataract Falls in 1876, and ever since, an apparition of a man in a 19th-century top hat and waistcoat has appeared each All Hallow's Eve.

Why so many bridges? Geography is the simplest answer.

When Ice Age glaciers melted in Indiana, they left behind hundreds of small streams, creeks and rivers. Fording them was a major obstacle to early farmers in the territory. Some bright settler decided building bridges out of local timber was the most economical and efficient way to go.

"These are very utilitarian structures," said DePauw's Wilson. "Farmers didn't want to lose their stock or crops or bust a wagon axle crossing rivers. And they certainly didn't want to rebuild the bridges every few years. So they built them to last," he said.

Roofing over the bridges helped them last, Wilson said, because the roads underneath were less exposed to the elements.

Practicality aside, covered bridges are also known as "kissing bridges" because folk wisdom says a couple who embrace under them will enjoy a lasting relationship, like the bridges themselves.

"In the horse-and-buggy days, couples went there to park," said Bill Patterson, executive director of Putnam County Visitors Bureau.

When the automobile captured the country's fancy in the 1920s, these romantic one-lane roads were bypassed, and with them the bridges. Many fell into disrepair. "The ones with the leaky roofs were first to go," said Wilson, who's from Ohio, where few bridges of this vintage remain.

"Luckily, some people eventually recognized them as part of our history and preserved them," he said.

In connection with this bridge lore, incidentally, Anne Lynk, director of the Parke County Convention and Visitors' Bureau in Rockville, Ind., wants to set the record straight on one point.

"Most people think of Madison County, Iowa, as the capital of covered bridges because of the book "Bridges of Madison County", but they have only six, whereas we have 32 just around Rockville," she said.

If Lynk were planning a trip for friends, she would send them first to the Bridgeton bridge "because it frames the entrance to the small town so wonderfully" and because there is a functioning grist mill nearby.

For views of vibrant foliage, the drive north of Rockville city center on the so-called "Yellow Route" is a must. The road is very hilly and the nearby Wabash River offers plenty of scenic picnic spots.

Next might be a stop in Rockville's historic downtown, complete with a vintage courthouse and Victorian central square.

In the town's refurbished 19th-century Old Opera House, visitors can see an old-fashioned melodrama, complete with a villain who ties the heroine to the train tracks. The audience is encouraged to hiss, boo, sigh and applaud as they watch the action unfold.

Patterson starts his visitors out at Ernie Pyle's boyhood home and museum in Dana, Ind.

"A lot of the folks we see are veterans or World War II history buffs. The museum is full of memorabilia, photos, a reconstructed bunker and even a Willys Jeep from that era."

The Billy Creek Village is Patterson's next stop, with its 30 turn-of-the century buildings and gift shops. From here, horse-drawn carriages take visitors out to three nearby covered bridges every weekend except in January and February.

About 1 million visitors are expected in the area for the annual 10-day Covered Bridge Festival, which runs Oct. 11-20 this year. There's also a festival in December.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

If you go . . .

During the annual Covered Bridge Festival, visitors will find some 2,000 arts and crafts booths set up around the Billy Creek Village and Mansfield Mill and Bridge Historic area, as well as special shows in theaters and bus tours of many of the area's 32 covered bridges and other tourist spots. The bus tours cost about $12.

Besides the covered bridges, visitors can see:

- The rotating Old Jail Museum in Greencastle, Ind., where there is only one entrance and exit. The interior cells rotate on a lazy-Susan type mechanism. When it's time for a prisoner to leave, the cell rotates around to the exit.

- An original World War II V-1 Buzz Bomb on display in Greencastle gives veterans and others get a close-up look at the first unmanned missile, one that terrorized London late in the war.

- The bank where John Dillinger pulled off his biggest robbery ($75,000) is also in downtown Greencastle.

The tourist bureaus in the area will be glad to help with tour arrangements. Call (800) 829-4639 (Putnam County) or (317) 569-5226 (Parke County). - Joan McQueeney Mitric