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An excited clamor surrounded the White Mills Day parade Saturday morning as children, teenagers, parents and city elders stood within arm’s length to watch and wave as fire departments, politicians, horses and tractors mingled with classic cars and civic organizations.
Craft and food vendors encircled White Mills Christian Camp while horse rides and a dinosaur-themed booth attracted crowds. But amid the excitement was a feeling of loss as a town icon stood dormant save for the light footfalls of vistors’ shoes.
The state closed White Mills bridge overlooking Nolin River last week after an inspection found structural defects beyond what was expected. A ban on pedestrian traffic was lifted in time for the festival, but the maximum limit at one time was capped at 10 people.
Built in 1899, the bridge stands as a local monument where decades of memories have been built elbow to elbow with traffic that has weathered the bridge.
“That’s the life of our community,” said Evelyn Morgan, a local resident whose father was born the year the bridge was built.
“They used to take us down here, before they built the road, on canoes to get to school” when the river was high, Morgan said.
The bridge’s closure was the second blow in recent memory for Morgan. Vandals targeted the bridge’s Christmas lights display last year, breaking or stealing 200 to 300 lights. A fundraiser was held to replace the display, Morgan said.
“They need to fix it,” Morgan said of the bridge.
At the foot of the bridge near the camp, a white folding table was placed with a poster board asking visitors to sign their names to a local campaign pushing for repairs. A typed letter written to local legislators was attached along with photos of the bridge.
The letter expressed fear the bridge would be forgotten and left in disrepair.
“We urge you to exert whatever influence you have to (ensure) that repairs to our beloved bridge are done in a timely fashion,” the letter stated.
By 10 a.m., more than 100 signatures had been gathered from visitors with more stopping to sign as they passed by.
“You can see this is the love of the community,” said Mary Ann Stith Shipley, who flew in from California to attend White Mills Days.
Shipley has lived in San Diego for more than 25 years but grew up in White Mills and spent nearly as much time there. When she heard the bridge was closed to vehicle traffic, she was shocked and frustrated.
“It was a real disheartening disappointment,” said.
Shipley tries to return to White Mills every year to visit family and participate in the area’s largest gathering. She said the bridge was a field trip for her when she was a child. When the river flooded, she would travel down to catch a glimpse and spot animals.
“There’s a lot of history in our county,” she said. “I said my mom would probably roll over in her grave knowing it’s closed.”
Because of the closure, the parade and 5K run were rerouted. Parking routes also had to change.
The disruption hampered the festival, Shipley said, but she expressed gratitude the state found the damage before it deteriorated further. Now she just hopes it is fixed.
State Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, said he holds the community of White Mills dear and contacted state highway officials immediately urging them to reopen the bridge to pedestrian traffic.
Parrett said safety must come first, but he has suggested $200,000 allocated to paint the bridge be shifted to repairs.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” he said while meeting with festival goers.
Despite the sadness surrounding the bridge, visitors were enjoying themselves and reconnecting with old friends while others were seeking out favorite dishes.
For others, it was the first taste of White Mills Days.
Flaherty resident Wade Sheeley was showing off his mint condition 1953 Citroen Traction Avant he has owned since 2005, when he obtained the French classic through his brother-in-law.
Since then, Sheeley has shown the car throughout the state, garnering numerous awards. Sheeley said he placed in a car show at Lexington’s Keeneland horse racing track in 2009 and won a title recently at Fort Knox.
“You don’t just (let a car) like that sit and not take it out and show it,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.