They left Fairfield County better than they found it

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Guest column by Connie Pierson Downour

Photo courtesy of the Pierson family
Bill Pierson working on the Shade covered bridge.

Bill Pierson might be remembered as a dreamer, but his firm handshake spoke only of hard work. His face lit up when he spoke of his two loves—his wife, Betty, and preserving history, especially covered bridges.

Bill met Betty Griffith at Lincoln High School in 1949. They married in 1950 and raised three children. In 1980, they purchased acreage on Sullivan Road and named it Misty Valley.

Their passion for preserving Fairfield County history began in 1980 when they approached county commissioners and were given the Shade Covered Bridge, which had been slated for destruction, that had spanned Little Walnut Creek since 1883. The stipulation was it had to be rebuilt in Fairfield County. Vandals had damaged the siding and set fires inside. Heavy truck traffic had cracked the double layer oak floor. Taking the giant wooden puzzle apart wasn’t easy. The 122-foot weather beaten structure had both arches and vertical beams.

This design was known as “belt and suspenders,” indicative of the bridge’s double support system.

For months the Piersons and friends worked on this piece of history. They removed the siding, lath, tin roof, and rafters. Then each timber, board, and beam was numbered according to its position on a detailed sketch drawn by hand. No machinery was used – mainly ropes, ladders, log chains and cables. Poles were used to support the framework.

Heavy cords and cross beams were lowered with ropes. Two hundred and thirty 10-inch thick wooden floor planks were removed, along with four arches, 124 oak rafters and 120 sheets of metal. Nails were pried out one at a time. Rusty bolts that were 15 feet long were oiled and removed with a car jack. The bottom cross members were in three pieces bolted together and weighed 600 pounds. Thousands of numbered pieces were transported to Sugar Grove. The project faced many obstacles, including damage caused by storms. The family and volunteers endured heat, fatigue and poison ivy, but their enthusiasm never wavered.

An assortment of neighbors, hikers, cyclists, and passersbys stopped to chat about the bridge and its history. Bill welcomed them all, handing each an original nail from the bridge made by blacksmiths in the 1800s. He kept a journal of the bridge-moving odyssey full of humorous details about each day spent on his labor of love. It is titled “If It Falls To The Left, Jump To The Right” and can be read at savetheshade.org.

Once the Shade Bridge was rebuilt at Misty Valley, it was established as a museum of Fairfield County history. Artifacts included farm tools, animal carvings, and antique farm machinery. A covered wagon was parked ahead of a 1958 Edsel. Other horse drawn wagons sat beside displays of handmade rag rugs and poems by Max Prouty. Pottery, bone shards, axe heads and flint arrowheads that date back to prehistoric man were on display. The original handmade wooden pins and bolts from the Shade were there, along with the bridge siding carved with initials and the date 1886.

Also on the property was a reconstructed 1840 era log cabin donated by the Sandusky family and moved from Buckeye Lake. It was furnished with antiques and was a popular site for apple butter making and cast iron kettles full of chili in the fall.

The Piersons conducted tours for scout troops, church groups and school field trips. They offered the site for reunions, birthday parties, hay rides,weiner roasts, Halloween parties, and weddings. Senior groups, old car clubs, photography clubs, motorcyclists, history buffs, and covered bridge enthusiasts from all over the United States came to visit Misty Valley. With the Shade and Mae Hummel bridges restored, Fairfield County surpassed Ashtabula County in having the most original covered bridges.

Maintaining these historic structures was always being done to ensure safety and preservation. Bill and Betty worked tirelessly in their retirement years to give others the chance to relive history.

The second bridge the Piersons saved was the 103-foot Mae Hummel that originally stood over Rush Creek on Hansley Road since 1875. Its remains had lain in a park in Sugar Grove for years until the Piersons and friends moved and rebuilt it at Misty Valley. It still stands in good condition despite being slated for demolition. To find out why this significant piece of history will be lost forever, go to savetheshade.org.

The George Hutchins Covered Bridge was built in 1904 and crossed Clear Creek on Strickler Road. In 1987, the bridge was dismantled and taken to Alley Park. Due to lack of funding, it was stored for 12 years. Bill accepted the challenge by gathering a group of men who had the knowledge and desire to restore history. As a result, the Friends of Lancaster Parks undertook a major fund raising effort and in 1999 they raised $30,000 for the project. Site work began in the fall of 1999 by Bill and the park staff, including Jim Thompson and Mike Clifford. On Oct. 20, 2000, a ribbon cutting and dedication took place. It still stands overlooking Lake Loretta and is open to foot traffic only.

Bill was instrumental in preserving another piece of history when Columbus Metro Parks gave Lancaster Parks and Recreation a two story log house. It was built in 1850 and named the Green Blanpied House. In early 2001, led by the Piersons’ enthusiasm as members of Friends of LPR, fund raising began. Bill’s vision was to move this cabin from Clear Creek Metro Park to Alley Park where it would become the backdrop for Frontier Spirit, the Pumpkin Walk, and Santa in the Park. He never dwelled on his past accomplishments, but always looked ahead to what needed to be preserved next.

Sadly, Bill passed away in July 2001. Betty then began a 13 year campaign of advocating and fund raising to see this project through to the end. She encountered many setbacks, but she was relentless and the dedicated Alley Park employees, along with family friend Bill Sands, completed the Green Blanpied House. In October 2016, it was dedicated to Bill and Betty.

When Sugar Grove formed a development committee, they called on the Piersons. Bill and Dave Nessley, along with Betty and Jean Fox restored the original 1830 jail in the village. Bill asked local artist Lois Bondurant to paint a mural of how Sugar Grove looked in the 1800s. She did a beautiful job of depicting the canals, trains, and buggies. I

In 2004, Sugar Grove gained a visitors center in the form of a C&O Railroad caboose. For many years, Bill and Monsignor Geiger had searched for one. With help from Kathy LeVeck and the Fairfield County Visitors Bureau, they were able to secure grants and funding. The development committee purchased one of the 26 remaining red cabooses out of 100 made by the American Car & Foundry Company. A flowering crab apple tree planted beside the caboose was dedicated in memory of Bill Pierson.

Betty continued to give back to her community by becoming a Meals on Wheels board member. She volunteered weekly as a Twig member working in the gift shop at Fairfield Medical Center. In 2006, she became a founding member of “A Priest and Six Old Ladies” along with Barbara Uhl, Jean Fox and Father Geiger. These volunteers, along with David Fey, raised $52,000 to bring a sculpture park to Berne Township. They commissioned artist Ric Leichliter to create a red tailed hawk that weighed 2,500 pounds stands on a 30 foot column. More sculptures were added, including white tail deer and wild turkey gobbler and hen.

After Bill’s death, Betty and her children continued to maintain Misty Valley and kept the historical structures open to the public. In 2013, Betty’s last wish was to leave this earth from her home overlooking the Shade Bridge and its beautiful surroundings. Hospice and her children made that wish happen. Then came the hard decision about how best to keep the Piersons’ dream alive. The sale was completed in 2015.

Bill and Betty Pierson did not like the spotlight. They didn’t do it for the notoriety or to make money. They preferred to quietly preserve history for future generations to enjoy. Separately they accomplished much, together they were unstoppable for 51 years. They left Fairfield County a better place than they found it.

Sadly, on March 9, 2022, the Shade Bridge collapsed. To read about why this significant piece of history will be lost forever, go to savetheshade.org.

For information about the fate of Misty Valley, go to savetheshade.org. The family can be reached at pierson0323@gmail.com.

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