How the Parke County
Covered Bridge Festival™ Began
by Kelsey Canfield
Back in 1957, the town of Rockville was like most other small towns around. With a population of 2,500 or so, it had a quaint hometown feel. A peacefulness that would soon be changing in the Fall of each year due to the Covered Bridge Festival.
But a change that has made Parke County what it is today. Mrs. Charles Cole, from Oxford Indiana, wrote a letter to The Rockville Republican newspaper in regards to a recent trip spent with two friends to Parke County. Mrs. Cole grew up in Rockville, and was anxious to bring friends back home to show them covered bridges through the countryside. In the two days spent driving and searching, she and her guests successfully found only 20 of the then 41 covered bridges in the county. Having been so disappointed and frustrated with the trip, she wrote the editor of the county’s newspaper to complain about the lack of information on the bridges. The editor published her letter and also wrote an editorial pointing out that Parke County was missing a huge opportunity for economic growth through tourism and use of the unique bridges.
At that time Parke County was also in poor shape as a major employer. The editor of the newspaper, W. B. Hargrave, passed along the plan to use the covered br idges for economic efforts to the Long Time Planning Committee. The committee enthusiastically approved the plan and asked Mr. Hargrave to create a committee specific to the task.
Nearly a year later Judy Snowden, a member of that committee, came up with the idea of a festival. It was to be held in October, just in time to have the trees in full fall color. The committee made their plans and in six weeks the first Covered Bridge Festival was underway. It was only three days long and took place on the Rockville Courthouse Square, the same place that festival headquarters is located today. Maps were available for the three covered bridge routes. The routes were marked along the way with cardboard signs and refreshment stands were arranged along each route. Bus tours also made their way along the routes with scripts written for the tour guides to follow.
When the first festival concluded, the committee made enough money to budget for the next year. The first festival’s budget was $600, and brought in at least 2,500 guests. Festival organizers were thrilled. As the crowds grew each year, so did the festival. Growing from three days, to two weekends, then to 10 full days. In 1961, Parke County Inc. was organized as a non-profit corporation and the Covered Bridge Festival Committee was organized. With each passing year new features were added to the Festival.
As Rockville festivities grew, the small towns along the driving routes did as well, creating a full countywide event helping nearly every community along the way. Over time these communities have found their own niche, each providing something unique to the visitors. However, one draw has remained the same from the beginning…the covered bridges. The covered bridges are why the festival began, why the county thrives, and what makes Parke County a unique destination.