Nobody talks about the Hunkerdown Bridge

August 19, 2022 8:00 am

(Photo courtesy of Mary Swander)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Right now, you don’t even want to mention the name Hunkerdown. Two words: the bridge stops all conversation. People sigh, roll their eyes and look the other way. But it wasn’t always this way.

A hundred years ago, the Hunkerdown Bridge connected our two adjacent towns. Farmers loaded up their wagons and brought their grain to the mill on the water, and it was the best place to throw a line over the side of the railing and fish in the Amish River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

In 1896 some prominent Freemartin Town citizens got together and fixed up a nice park, just above the mill. Their vision was a summer resort with a lemonade stand, a merry-go-round, a boat dock, and camping and picnic grounds. They envisioned people coming from miles around to relax at Hunkerdown, throwing down a glass of river water lemonade.

The park was never really discovered by the masses, but the locals seemed to like it that way. Farmers, both English and Amish, sat for a spell at the mill, trading stories and exchanging the news of the day. And on Sundays after church, families gathered in the park for picnics and games of horseshoes. On Friday and Saturday nights, the place became a lover’s lane where boys from Bull Town might even meet up with one of those forbidden Freemartin Town girls.

The first of the two towns to get their charter was Bull Town, a placed filled with pedigreed cattle and purebred Amish. The town had 18 churches, ranging from Methodist to conservative Mennonite, not one store that sold liquor, and no bars. Then some Bohemian immigrants hit the area shortly after the Amish settled here. The Bohemians wanted a drink, so they crossed the river a couple of miles south and settled their own town, naming it Freemartin Town, a village with one Catholic church and 18 bars.

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So, Bull Town and Freemartin Town co-existed for well over a century, with the Hunkerdown Bridge, a beautiful old metal structure with a deck of wooden planks built in 1880, serving as a conduit from sin to sanity. I used to love to say a prayer to St. Christopher for safety, then drive over that old rattling bridge, watching the great blue herons swoop the water below. The bridge was full of myth and mystery. Once we even had a made-for-TV movie filmed on that bridge starring Hayley Mills.

“One of them movie actors was walking over the bridge,” my Amish neighbor told me. “She was all dressed up like us in a black bonnet and shawl, but she was smoking a cigarette!”

Soon after the cigarette was extinguished, the county condemned the bridge and all traffic stopped. Then someone sparked a fire in the middle of the night and half of Hunkerdown burned. We had to drive a good seven miles out of our way on the highway to get from one town to the other, so trade and mixed marriages between the two towns began to dwindle. A movement arose to rehab the bridge. Both towns went together to collect money and T-shirts and seed caps appeared with: Save our Bridge printed on those from Bull Town and Don’t Let Hunkerdown Go to Hell on the Freemartin Town shirts.

The local Freemartin Town foundry fortified the metal structure of the bridge, and the Bull Town Amish went to work replacing the planks, reorienting them horizontally so that their buggy wheels no longer fell down between the cracks. But more money had to be raised to replace the burned segment of the bridge. As it stood, from Bull Town you could walk three quarters of the way across the river, but there the bridge ended before reaching Freemartin Town. The metal structure was still there, but the deck had gone up in the fire.

So, the townspeople got together and decided that they would have musical entertainment fundraisers on the bridge. They booked the best blues, jazz, and old-time musicians around, and this time scores of people from miles around flocked to the river with lawn chairs, coolers, kids and dogs. Lights were strung along the railings. And torches were lit to drive away bugs. Meat sizzled on grills. The Bull Town folks sat quietly on the north bank eating hot dogs and drinking lemonade. The Freemartin Town folks lined the south bank eating hamburgers and drinking Schlitz. The musicians played, Catfish Keith on his ­­­­­­­National guitar bowing first to the northern crowd, his voice echoing over the water Hello, Bull Town, then spinning around to the southern fans Hello, Freemartin Town.

Tapping his foot for rhythm, his old fedora hat pushed back on his head, his guitar plugged into an amp that carried his song down the river all the way to New Orleans, Catfish sang “The Mississippi River Blues.” All gathered relaxed back into their chairs, spotting some of the first migrating flamingoes on their way south for the winter, the pink birds circling the crowd, then diving down into the water for food.

At the end of the concert, Amos, the owner of the Kwik ‘N Easy, the local convenience store, passed around a coffee can and all of the Bull Town folks made donations. Then hanging from the cables, Amos inched his way across the bridge from north to south, one hand overlapping the other, and he collected from the Freemartin Town folks.

Everyone gave generously, and in the end, that may have been part of the problem. Finally, no one could figure out where the money had gone, and the dream of two small towns ended in disappointment. The Amish made rugs of the T-shirts and sold the seed caps in their resale shop to support their well drilling mission in Haiti. The whole story became so long, convoluted, and painful, nobody wanted to retell it. If asked, we just shook our heads.

The rehab of the bridge-to-nowhere stopped, but happily the concerts on the bridge have continued for years. During the summers, we still gather in our lawn chairs and listen to great music. The first two Covid summers, the music on the bridge was silenced. Instead, we sat at home, socially distanced, and sang the blues to our own rhythms. We stationed ourselves separately, each on our own porch, listening to the howling of the coyotes at night, watching the shooting stars falling down. This year we’ve returned, joined together, connected again, two small rural towns surviving in an urban world, getting along, Amish and English, lemonade in one hand, can of Schlitz in the other.

About this column

This column was originally published by Mary Swanders’ Buggy Land. Please subscribe to support her work.


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Mary Swander
Mary Swander

Mary Swander is a well-published author and playwright, the executive director of AgArts, and the host of the “AgArts from Horse & Buggy Land” podcast. Find her work at She is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative. Subscribe to her blog, Mary Swander's Buggy Land, here.