By Regena Handy
When major floodwaters demolished historic Bob White Covered Bridge in September, 2015, there was an immediate outpouring of sorrow at the loss. It was almost as if its mourners had suffered the passing of a loved one.
For those of us who grew up in or have ties to the Smith River District area, that was indeed the case. Many will share unashamedly that when they heard the bridge had washed into the swollen waters, they cried like children whose favorite toy was gone.
But the effect of the loss was far reaching, beyond local boundaries, with comments quickly showing up on social media sites sharing past experiences that included the Bob White and Jacks Creek, its sister bridge, encounters that in some cases have lingered for years as treasured moments.
The Woolwine Covered Bridge Committee issued a statement sharing its sadness that a piece of the county’s heritage and the source of innumerable memories were gone, recognizing its many associated reminiscences to be as unique to each person as the individual himself.
For Gene Fain, a resident of Henry County who grew up approximately a mile from Bob White and who now serves as one of the Covered Bridge Festival Committee members, the bridge holds not only past memories, but more recent special moments, as well.
“To me as a kid, the bridge was always a fun place to ride a bicycle,” Fain said. “As I grew older, it became a peaceful place with the rhododendron growing on the hillside, shade of the trees on the riverbank and calming sounds of the flowing water with the church in the background. Later the Bob White Bridge turned out to be the perfect location for my wedding. It will always be a very special place to me and I will always have fond memories of the bridge.”
Like the Fains, others have found the bridge to be a picturesque backdrop for the setting of weddings, family portraits, prom photos, and numerous special occasions.
In the case of two Woolwine brothers who grew up in playing in the bridge, its existence was part of their everyday life. Moir and Ralph Haden each still reside in the area and shared favorite memories of earlier times.
Moir stated that the family moved to within sight of the bridge when he was around 10 years old and the bridge became his second home because it drew him like a magnet. He said his summers were spent fishing and swimming around the bridge.
“For a fishing pole I would use reeds that grew beside the bridge, tie a string and put a hook on the end. Made a fine fishing pole,” he said. Regarding swimming, he added, “The bridge offered a great place to hide from the girls that lived nearby because we were skinny dipping.”
Now at age 83, he recalls the pleasure found in riding his children, and later grandchildren and great-grandchildren through and exploring the bridge. He likened it to a museum that had generations of names and initials carved in the woodwork.
On September 29, he watched the waters continue to rise into his back yard off Elamsville Road, gravely concerned about the Bob White bridge downstream.
“Nature was our enemy that day,” he noted.
Ralph Haden referred to the area as the village of Bob White, for the community once had a post office, small store, and a gristmill which stood adjacent to the bridge. He recalled that he and older brother Marvin loaded a sack of corn onto the plow horse and took it to be ground at the mill operated by Luther Slaughter.
“While Mr. Slaughter was grinding the ground, we along with the Slaughter and Baliles kids, who also lived nearby, would play under the bridge,” Ralph said. He also spoke fondly of fishing in the Smith River near the bridge, noting that the best catfish he had seen could be caught there.
The water coming off the mill turbine kept a deep hole dug out under the bridge and created a great fishing hole. He remembered that he would get under the bridge during a rainstorm and fish.
“That bridge was my life, it was the greatest place on Earth for a boy to be raised,” he added.
The Bob White Covered Bridge was named after the nearby post office, which purportedly received its title from the bobwhite quail. The structure spanned the Smith River just off Route 618 and was built in 1921 by local resident Walter Weaver.
Granddaughter Betty Weaver Perry, who serves as chairman of the Covered Bridge Festival Committee, recalled the stories told by her own father, who as a small boy helped his father and older brother with the construction.
“Dad [Noel Weaver] was so proud of the Bob White, he loved to take the grandchildren to the bridge and reminisce about the long days of helping Grandfather and Uncle Ed build it. He would tell how he
carried the water needed in constructing the bridge.”
Betty added that growing up she never gave a lot of thought to the bridges, she had heard her father talk about them a good deal and they were just part of life.
“It is only in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate how truly special the covered bridges are to the community and surrounding areas,” she said.
For many years, the covered bridge was used every Sunday by Betty Elgin Holt and her family as they traveled to Smith River Church of the Brethren where her father served as pastor. In 1981 a new modern structure was built nearby and the old bridge closed to vehicular traffic. Mrs. Holt recollected as a child playing with others in the bridge following Bible School classes, and how the bridge always seemed almost like an extension of the church.
She noted that the roadway into the bridge turns at a sharp angle and that when she was learning to drive, she scraped the side of the car on the inside of the bridge. “It didn’t do too much damage but it didn’t make Daddy very happy,” she recalled.
In 2004 as part of an effort to promote tourism, the Patrick County Tourism Office with support of county officials established the Covered Bridge Festival.
The event is held annually on the third Saturday in June near the bridge sites and serves as a draw in showcasing the Woolwine community.
The Virginia General Assembly officially sanctioned the festival during its 2007 session, as Patrick County was, at that time, home to two of the few publicly-owned covered bridges remaining in the Commonwealth. The event is now hosted and manned by volunteers from the Woolwine Fire Department, Smith River Rescue Squad and other Woolwine residents serving as part of the committee.
At the time of its loss, Bob White was scheduled for renovations through Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) grants specifically designated for covered bridge improvements. A required local match estimated to be between $60,000 and $75,000 was being raised through the diligent efforts of the volunteer committee.
Now with the bridge gone, along with the sharing of memories have come inquiries relating to the future. Almost immediately following the flood, questions were raised by community citizens and many outside the Woolwine area as to whether the bridge could be rebuilt.
The Covered Bridge Committee voted to request that the Patrick County Board of Supervisors forward to VDOT a proclamation to support construction of a bridge to replace Bob White and local citizens spoke in support of the effort. The Board agreed to offer its support with the provision that no local tax dollars be involved.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, it was learned that the VDOT grant funding intended for renovation of the old bridge could not be used for actual replacement.
So where do we go from here? Because the covered bridges have served as an important component of local tourism efforts, the Tourism Advisory Council (TAC) and County Tourism Office are looking into other alternative funding sources. An online funding campaign has been created to accept donations from anyone wishing to contribute. Those interested in doing so can find further information at visitpatrickcounty.org This can be handled anonymously and any amounts are accepted.
The efforts to possibly reconstruct the bridge create an excellent opportunity for community participation and involvement. Such an endeavor will entail innumerable man hours, knowledge and expertise, challenges and rewards, and lastly, more than a lot of monetary contributions from its supporters. Perhaps it will be possible to turn a sad loss to our area and all old bridge lovers everywhere into a communal venture of success.