For as long as anyone could remember, the Jellico family had raised corn and wheat on their two hundred fertile acres of Midwest farmland. They marketed their grain through a large cooperative whose elevators were located in the town of Kingston, about twenty miles north of the Jellico farm.
For reasons no one fully understood, the Jellicos—who had adopted many of the most modern agricultural methods to ensure maximum productivity from their acreage—insisted on hauling their grain to market in a large wagon pulled by a team of strong mules.
In the old days, there had been but one major road from the Jellico farm to the grain elevator in Kingston. Oh, there was a rutty old one-lane road that veered off to the right about twelve miles north of the farm, just south of the river. It did go to Kingston, but it was narrow and winding and generally more difficult. Some people used it, but the vast majority stayed on the main road.
Until, that is, the county built a new bridge across the river. Most of those who traveled the road regularly, and that included numerous farmers, like the Jellicos, who used the road for hauling grain, couldn’t understand why a new bridge was needed. The old one seemed altogether satisfactory. In their careful examination of the old bridge, however, county engineers observed definite weaknesses in the old structure and places where the original construction had been faulty. The old bridge had become a safety hazard and needed to be replaced.
The farmers remained skeptical as they watched the new bridge go up. When it was completed, and the old bridge finally razed, they felt certain their skepticism had been justified. The new bridge was a cable-suspension design that most of the farmers judged far too flimsy and unstable for the volume of traffic it would serve. It looked to them like it would collapse in one of the windstorms that were frequent and often severe in that part of the country.
County officials published extensive literature explaining and defending the new bridge’s design and construction. They were adamant in their claims that the new structure was far superior to the bridge it replaced as to both efficiency and safety standards.
Despite their best efforts, a great many of the farmers refused to travel the main road to Kingston after the new bridge opened. They began using the old, rutty road—the one that veered off to the right just south of the river. They widened the road, where they could, and reinforced the old bridge on that road that had been built many years before of logs and rough-hewn timber. But there were still narrow places along the road, and a tunnel, where loads of a certain height and width could not be accommodated.
The new bridge and the road it served required no such restrictions or limitations. The variety of traffic using the road and the new bridge increased greatly over time, but the volume stayed about the same—some say it even declined—since virtually all the farm traffic refused to cross the river on the new bridge.
Over time, the place where the road forked just south of the river gave rise to a small village called Decision. The road to the left came to be called Left Fork Road, and the new bridge was named the Left Road Bridge. A similar pattern of nomenclature applied to the road and bridge that followed the right fork.
Around 1980, Evan Jellico took over the family farm and continued most of the policies and practices handed down to him when his father retired. He insisted that the grain harvest be hauled to the elevator on the mule-drawn wagon, and he refused to take the Left Fork Road at Decision, preferring to use the Right Fork Road and the old, reliable Right Road Bridge.
It’s true that the Left Road Bridge had gained a questionable reputation in its early years, owing to the diversity of traffic it encouraged. The land adjacent to the bridge, and even the bridge itself, became the setting for picnics and festivals and other gatherings of those the farmers regarded as unsavory characters of uncertain origin who engaged in unseemly behavior. Despite the fact that nothing untoward ever came out of those events and the community seemed enriched and invigorated by the increased diversity, the farmers could not be dissuaded. They were convinced the bridge was dangerous and that it attracted a disreputable crowd.
One day during fall harvest season, Evan Jellico loaded his large wagon with grain, hitched the mule team to it, and set off for the elevator in Kingston. Just as he reached the village of Decision, the skies opened up, and Evan’s wagonload of grain was drenched by torrential rainfall. There was no place to take shelter, and he was much closer to Kingston than to his farm, so Evan pushed bravely on. When he pulled the reins to the right, however, to guide the mule team toward the Right Fork Road, they refused to heed his direction.
At first the mules simply stopped in their tracks. Then, against the urging of their driver, they veered to the left and headed down the Left Fork Road toward the Left Road Bridge about two miles ahead. Evan hauled mightily on the reins and yelled loudly, but the mules ignored him and continued to pull the wagon down the Left Fork Road. Certain that disaster awaited them if they tried to cross the flimsy Left Road Bridge in this storm, Evan frantically searched for some means by which to forestall the impending calamity.
He spotted two shovels, handles protruding from the mound of grain. He grabbed the shovels and rammed their handles into the spokes of the wagon’s front wheels. The shovel handles jammed against the underside of the wagon carriage, effectively preventing the wheels from turning.
Despite the increased friction, the mules pulled all the harder, eventually reached the Left Road Bridge, and delivered the wagon and its contents across the swollen river to the safety of the other side. Just as his wagon, with front wheels still locked in place, arrived on the north side of the river, Evan heard a loud crash behind him. He turned to see the remnants of the Right Road Bridge which, swept from its mooring by the rising river, had crashed into the side of the Left Road Bridge. To his amazement, the new bridge withstood the collision and, although now flooded, did not collapse.
Evan’s valiant efforts to halt the wagon’s progress had succeeded only in delaying the river crossing so that they barely escaped being on the bridge when it was hit by the remnants of the old bridge from upstream. In addition, by locking the front wheels and forcing the mules to drag the wagon as though it were a sled—but without the snow—he increased the duration of the trip to the elevator by about thirty minutes, during which the grain was further saturated by the rain.
Most of his wagonload of grain was lost to mildew and rot. Only a small portion, on the very bottom of the load, could be salvaged.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t have gotten here sooner,” the elevator manager told Evan as his grain was being unloaded. “We could have saved more of the load. Even half an hour would have made a big difference.”
Live and learn, Evan thought to himself. Live and learn.