The Ackley covered bridge, spanning a small pond in Dearborn's Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, is one of more than 80 historic structures pioneering automaker Henry Ford collected as he developed the 80-acre outdoor showcase honoring America's history and its development as an industrial giant.
The bridge is one of my favorite destinations in the village, especially on a quiet spring or autumn day when it's easy to imagine how the bridge appeared at its original location in the Pennsylvania countryside.
Joshua Ackley and David Clouse built the 75-foot-long, multiple-kingpost bridge to span the Enlow Fork, a branch of Wheeling Creek, on the line dividing Washington and Greene counties in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1832.
Some area residents thought builders should use hickory wood for the covered bridge to honor Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson, president of the United States at that time. Practicality prevailed when construction began on land owned by the Ackley family, using oak timbers from trees felled on Joshua Ackley's nearby farm. Oak was more readily available, and less prone to warp. Stones for the bridge abutments came from a nearby quarry, nails used came from a small steel mill a couple of miles upstream, and about 100 men worked on the bridge.
One of the most interesting and complete accounts I found about the building of the bridge during 1830 to 1832 came from a Facebook page maintained by Ackley family descendants. Robert A. Ackley tells how ox teams hauled timber to the site where it was hand cut, and describes the method used for the bridge's unusual shingled roof.
Robert Ackley also mentions a story related by Forrest Samuel Ackley, bridge builder Joshua Ackley's grandson. Forrest Ackley wrote that Native Americans living in the area at the time were not happy with what they saw as further incursion into their territory, and they responded by shooting arrows and rifle balls at the bridge.
The solidly built bridge survived that and flooding in the area during 1902. It stood in Pennsylvania for 105 years before local county officials ordered it demolished. The old bridge was in disrepair by 1935, and plans called for a more modern replacement concrete and steel bridge.
The 1930s was also a time when Henry Ford began searching for a covered bridge for Greenfield Village.
Lucille (Ackley) Carroll, Joshua Ackley's granddaughter, learned of plans for the bridge's demolition and set about saving it. She learned of Ford's interest in the bridge and contacted him. She purchased the covered bridge from the Pennsylvania highway department and gave it to Henry Ford for Greenfield Village.
Perhaps the fact that William Holmes McGuffey was born a few miles from the bridge's location sparked Ford's imagination and interest because he greatly admired the author of a series of schoolbooks popular in 19th century America. He also already acquired the cabin where McGuffey was born in 1800 at West Finley Township, Pennsylvania, for Greenfield Village.
In late 1937, Ford sent workers to Pennsylvania to dismantle the bridge, number each piece, and load the pieces onto trucks for the 300-mile trip to Dearborn. They also transported stones from the river bank in Pennsylvania, and Ford ordered yellow poplar wood from Greene County to craft replacement pieces for bridge parts too decayed to use for its reassembly in Michigan.
Members of the Ackley and McGuffey families traveled to Michigan in 1938 for the reassembled bridge's dedication at Greenfield Village.
I'm again looking forward to visiting the bridge at Greenfield Village (which opens for the season on April 15 this year) and give a special thanks to Mrs. Carroll and Mr. Ford for saving this picturesque piece of Americana.
Want to learn more about how Henry Ford collected other structures and artifacts for The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village? Check out the book, Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and his Museum by Ford R. Bryan at Amazon.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved