The story of a familiar landmark: Gilliland Covered Bridge

By Danny 'The Vagabond' CrownoverBy Danny 'The Vagabond' Crownover

Don’t forget! On Saturday, Nov, 3. The Vagabond and the Etowah Historical Society is sponsoring a tour to Arab, Alabama to see their historical village. We will leave Elliott Community Center (located at 29th and Meighan at the very back of the historical society) at 9 a.m. sharp and follow a convoy.

You can follow or ride with someone. Cost to see the village is $5.

We will stop afterward to eat at Sarah’s Café in Walnut Grove. Sarah’s features the best food in Etowah County, and the price is unbelievable – only $6 per person for the buffet and that includes drink and homemade dessert.

Now to the Vagabond’s story:

Years ago, some careless hunters built a warming fire at one end of the old Gilliland covered bridge, located at the bottom of Lookout Mountain from Noccalula Falls.

The bridge was on the farm where past Gadsden Mayor Les Gilliland was raised. As a result, he had the bridge moved to Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden, where he could keep an eye on it.

Many changes have been made in the area once served by Gilliland’s Bridge. The road served by the bridge was once the Reeceville Road, later replaced by U.S. Hwy 11.

After the bridge was abandoned for public use, the H. Ross Gilliland family maintained it until 1968 when the bridge was restored and relocated in the Pioneer Museum at Noccalula Falls Park.

The bridge now serves as one of several of the most remarkable collections of pioneer buildings in the South.

Mayor Gilliland’s grandfather, Jess Gilliland, was the leader that built the bridge in 1899. At the time of construction, the Etowah County treasury was depleted, but the nearby inhabitants were willing to help.

Volunteer labor from Little Wills Valley and Big Wills Valley, as well as both Lookout and Sand Mountain helped construct the bridge.

Donations were made to purchase needed materials, and lumber was sawed at the mill on Lookout Mountain near McCauley’s Chapel Church from logs donated by people in the area.

The construction of the bridge and raising of the road was a great improvement in those days for Etowah, Marshall and DeKalb counties. Prior to the bridge, ford was the only means of crossing the creek in the summer; during the winter, the creek was impassable.

The old Gilliland covered bridge is one of the few surviving covered bridges in the state. The former mayor even swam from it when he was a boy.

The bridge was something of a community center for both men and boys on rainy days. There were whittling, mumblety-peg, shooting matches, checkers, dominoes, or just plain loafing went on in or around it.

Heavy traffic in those days consisted of about two dozen wagons and bu-ggies per day, leaving the rest of the day for other activities.

Surrounded by large shade trees, the area under the bridge soon became a favorite fishing hole on warm afternoons.

Boys often hid there and shouted through cracks in the floor to frighten horses.

They also lingered beneath the bridge to eavesdrop on the courting that went on above.

Rumors have it that Gilliland kissed his first girl on the friendly bridge. Either way, it is known that at least one wedding was performed there.There was this one couple heading to Gadsden for a marriage license, and on the way back home by chance met the minister midway over the bridge. The knot was tied then and there!

Once a town has collected a cover bridge it goes to collect other old structures, too.

Walk over the bridge into the pioneer museum in Noccalula Park today, and you’ll find the old country post office store with a sign advertising “Bloodhound Tobacco for a Dog-gone Good Chew.”

There’s a double cabin with the usual dog run in between, a cookhouse with butter churns in which during pre-TVA days the arm did the work.

There’s an ash hopper for making soap to use in the hollowed-out log tubs in the wash shed. Dried meat hangs in the smokehouse, and there’s an herb garden.

A young couple from out-of-state was recently married in the old log church, and many others have slipped in with a preacher and a few friends on other occasions.

In the past, special services were held in the church, and a group of “fa-so-la” singers use it for a yearly old-fashioned sing.

All the pioneer structures with their authentic tools and furnishings took some collecting.

The country store was originally a commissary on a large plantation located between Centre and Cedar Bluff, on land that is now flooded by the dam on the Coosa River. The loom house stood nearby.

To rescue the buildings from the rising waters, Mayor Gilliland and Ray Bullock, Gadsden’s Director of Parks and Recreation, had to hire a ferryboat to get them out.

Scouting the Lawrenceburg, Tenn., area, collectors Gilliland and Bullock heard of the old Cox homestead, which was abandoned in the remote hill.

Many of the nearby residents did not want the cabins to leave.

Gilliland and Bullock loaded the cabins on a nearby abandoned railroad and snuck them out of the hills while the gun bearing locals were watching the road.

Back to the covered bridge, Gilliland had a dam and pond built. It, just like the other structures were restored to prominence and new grandeur. The bridge now serves an entirely different purpose.

Once the lifeline of Etowah, Marshall and DeKalb Counties, Gilliland Bridge now stands a monument to the memories and past heritage of another century.

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