The movie (and book): Bridges of Madison County
The Location: Iowa, USA
Madison County used to be the kind of place the world drove through on the way to somewhere more exciting. The turn you didn't take off the freeway... Hicksville, USA. Women wore flowery frocks, men wore Steinbeck overalls and the teenagers couldn't wait to escape to the big city bright lights.
The county had two claims to fame:Its local staple, the red delicious apple and the fact that it was the birthplace of John Wayne. Then a slim, sentimental paperback hit the best-seller lists and the tour buses began to roll in. The book, The Bridges Of Madison County, told a simple love story of aging sweethearts who met in Madison. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Then Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep made a movie and things really took off. Even now, many years after the initial movie and book hype the bridges over the untroubled waters of Madison County still get their fair share visitors. For luxury travel lovers this small county in Iowa offers an escape far from the madding crowd - and far from the fabulous five stars you are used to but hey, if Meryl Streep can do it so can you.
Such was its impact on the sleepy town of Winterset, where much of the action takes place, that the 4,500 locals still refer to their new-found celebrity status as 'BB' (before the book) and 'AB' (after the book).
The BB era meant less than 50,000 visitors to the year's main tourist event (the annual Covered Bridge Festival). AB meant an influx of 100,000 tourists in 1994, an Oprah show on "romance" filmed on location and an endless succession of couples crossing America to marry on Roseman Bridge, featured heavily in the book. These days, although there are still specific tours and readers do still make the pilgrimage, you'll be glad to know that visitors have again slackened off, allowing those seeking sanctuary to enjoy the quieter rural pleasures of Madison.
Eastwood and Streep starred as the lovers, photographer Robert Kincaid and farmer's wife Francesca Johnson, in a film of the same name as the book. The three-tissue-box movie was a worldwide weepy success making the old bridges of sleepy Madison County unlikely Hollywood stars. The movie, shot in eight weeks, was filmed on location. "You got the house, a little bit of Winterset, the bridge, some country roads and that's it", says Eastwood, who also directed. So what you are looking at on film is what you'll see if you visit Madison County.
Turn off the Interstate Highway 169 towards Winterset and you are soon lost in a sea of swaying corn fields and soya bean crops. It's the kind of place where even luxury travellers wish they could swap their leather-seated top of the range rental car for a pick-up truck with rust on the bonnet.
However, what really gives the area its charm, and the film its title, are the old-fashioned covered bridges. Madison County is a spider's web of creeks and rivers. Once the area had 19 covered bridges, mostly named after the nearest local resident, they spanned the waterways like barns on stilts. The bridges were closed in by order of the County Board of Supervisors to protect the underfoot timbers which were more expensive to replace than the lumber used for the sides and roof. The covers also offered shade to farm workers who ate their bread and cheese away from the sun's glare and discreet shelter for couples on steamy summer evenings.
Today six are left and all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of them still have hearts and entwined initials of long dead lovers carved into their aging beams. The most famous bridge is Roseman, a russet bridge edged by a tangle of weeds and wildflowers which attract the butterflies. This is the bridge Robert Kincaid is looking for when he first meets Francesca. It's the bridge on which she pins a note for him at midnight and it's the bridge from which their ashes are scattered when they die. It was built in 1883 by engineer Benton Jones.
As well as being the most romantic of the bridges it is also called the "haunted bridge" because in 1892 an escapee from the county jail, trapped on the bridge by a posse, uttered a loud cry, jumped through the roof and disappeared. In 1992 Roseman Bridge got a $200,000 facelift. When Eastwood arrived he decided the bridge looked too smart. In typical Hollywood fashion the paint was peeled off and the timbers broken to regain its old down-at-heel look. However, visitors will find Roseman in pristine condition, when filming was over the movie makers dutifully spruced it up again.
On Cedar Creek, north of Winterset you'll find the other bridge featured in the film. In 1883 it was a busy year for the bridge builders: that is when the very same Benton Jones constructed Cedar Bridge. This is the only one you're allowed to drive a car over. Holliwell Bridge, south west of Winterset on the Middle River and Hogback Bridge were also built by Benton Jones in 1880 and 1884 respectively. Walk over Holliwell and your footsteps echo for a long time because at 40 metres it's the longest covered bridge in the country.The oldest remaining covered bridge is Imes built in 1870. It has been moved three times and now you'll find it straddling a ravine east of the village of St Charles. Last comes the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge with its unusual pitched roof. It's in Winterset's city park.
Once you've explored the bridges you can always pay homage to the king of cowboys, John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset in 1907. His birthplace has been restored, complete with antique furnishings and "Duke" memorabilia including the eyepatch he wore in True Grit.
Then there is the old limestone County Courthouse in the town square with its huge dome and four clocks. If ever you get lost in the surrounding country, just look for the dome, it is visible for kilometres. The North River Stone schoolhouse built in 1876 was attended by Madison County kids until the 1940s. Those still in search of history can also visit the Prairie Village complex on Winterset's southside, with exhibits like original log cabins, an old stone privy and a restored Victorian mansion.
However, the way to really get the mood of Madison County is simply to wander. Driving your car lazily down dirt roads where yellow dogs bark at your wheels, bees buzz and screen doors bang in the breeze. Despite all the hype, Madison County hasn't really changed all that much. The world still moves slowly. Wining a rosette with your prize steer at the State Fair is a big event. As one guide book puts it: "The World pork expo is a red-letter day in Des Moines (the State Capital) and the city goes hog-wild for the Iowa State Fair every August."
Folks around these parts don't really care too much for film folk. The story goes (according to US Premiere magazine at the time) that when Eastwood was filming he sent word to a local farmer asking him to stop his tractor because the sound could be heard on tape."I got news for Eastwood," replied the farmer. "If my beans are ready they're coming out." In Madison County the beans are more important than the stars and that is exactly what makes this tiny slice of Iowa worth a visit.
on Location fact:
Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, was also filmed in Iowa
The nearest star-rated hotels are in des Moines, none are reviewed by us. We contribute this article to The Luxury Travel Bible for the beauty of the scenery not the luxuriousness of hotels.
Hilary Doling update 11/3/10