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Piece of Fieldale's past preserved for the future
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Bea Bullard, co-chairman of the Fieldale Heritage Committee, speaks Sunday during a dedication ceremony for trusses from the old iron bridge, which once spanned the Smith River near the town’s entrance. The trusses, shown in rear, were saved and installed in the Fieldale Ballpark.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

A piece of history was honored Sunday in Fieldale as trusses from the community's old iron bridge were dedicated in the Fieldale Ballpark.

Close to 100 people attended a ceremony dedicating the trusses, which were saved in June 2009 as the former bridge was dismantled. They were restored and installed in the park, where they were assembled along a gravel path to look like a smaller version of the original structure.

That bridge, built in 1931, had become a symbol of the former mill town, and seeing it go was difficult for many in Fieldale. Speaking at the dedication, Virginia Department of Transportation residency administrator Lisa Hughes recalled how hard it was for the community when VDOT decided that the old bridge could not be saved due to safety concerns.

"One of the most difficult things I ever had to do in my career was to know the right thing to do was to replace the bridge, knowing what it meant to people," Hughes said. Preserving part of the old bridge within sight of the newer, safer one is "the best of both worlds," she said.

Bea Bullard, co-chairman of the Fieldale Heritage Committee and a volunteer on the project, said it was made possible by the cooperation of numerous groups, businesses and individuals.

"This has been a joint endeavor," Bullard said, citing the leadership of Jennifer Doss, who was with the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) when she spearheaded the effort to save part of the bridge and install it along the Fieldale Trail, which runs along the river by the ballpark.

The location had to be changed because the risk of flooding prevented the installation of the trusses so close to the river, said DRBA's Brian Williams. He took over the project when Doss left the group to become director of tourism with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

Doss, who called the project "a labor of love," said it reached not only Fieldale residents but those from as far away as Florida and California who donated to the project.

Funds were raised through donations and the sale of plaques in honor or in memory of people with ties to the Fieldale community. A total of 161 plaques are displayed on the trusses now, and eight more have been sold and soon will be installed there, Bullard said.

With the plaques, "a patchwork of history was formed," Doss said. She explained that many of those who donated funds for plaques shared their memories and stories about the bridge and what it meant to Fieldale.

"We learned about people throughout the community who are passionate about history," Doss said. "They might not live in Fieldale now, but they cared enough" to be part of preserving the bridge.

One of those people was Bobby Craddock, who early on volunteered the use of a flatbed truck to move the trusses. Unfortunately, Craddock passed away shortly after making that pledge, Doss said.

However, his wife and son, Deborah and Wesley Craddock, carried through with the promise, and the reassembled trusses were dedicated in Bobby Craddock's memory.

Numerous other local business owners and individuals helped raise a total of $14,000 for the project, as well as numerous in-kind donations, said Williams and Doss. They did not have a total cost estimate, but Williams estimated the value of in-kind work was at least an additional $7,000.

After listening to many stories about the bridge, Doss said she learned that one of the reasons it was so important to people was its unique structure.

"This is something you don't see that often anymore," she said. "Future generations might not know what an iron bridge is."�

Students could visit the trusses to learn about the architecture and geometry involved in iron bridge construction, she added.

Many of the people who donated funds for plaques were visiting Sunday to celebrate the dedication and examine the finished project. The plaques, which are black with white lettering, line the 12-foot-high trusses below waist level.

Mike Kahle of Fieldale and his wife, Brenda, were among the first to explore the plaques after the ceremony. Their family purchased a plaque in memory of Mike Kahle's father, William "Bill" Kahle, who lived in Fieldale before his death in 2007.

The bridge project was a family affair for the Kahles - Mike's youngest brother, Andrew Kahle, managed the bridge project for VDOT and served as master of ceremonies during Sunday's event.

Hannah Dillon of Ridgeway said her family donated a plaque in memory of her father, Larry W. Dillon, who died last year. Larry Dillon was a plant superintendent over plant services with Fieldcrest Cannon (later Pillowtex Inc.), where he worked for 26 years.

"It was a pretty big thing (for the family) to try to keep him here, because he was so well known" in Fieldale, Hannah Dillon said.

Tommy Slaughter, who represents the Reed Creek District on the Henry County Board of Supervisors, hasn't dedicated a plaque yet but said he might take advantage of the opportunity. Slaughter's grandfather, James William Slaughter, was Fieldale's first police chief, and his mother's parents owned a store there, he said.

Although he moved from Fieldale to Ridgeway when he was 5 years old, Slaughter said he spent many weekends and summers in Fieldale with his grandparents. In those days, many people from throughout the area visited Fieldale for sock hops or to go to the YMCA, he said.

The strong sense of community and connection to Fieldale is noteworthy, Henry County Administrator Benny Summerlin said during the dedication.

"We've got a lot to be thankful for in this community," Summerlin said. The trusses "are a good addition to the park to remind us of the past as we guide our future."�

Or as Bullard put it, "It is really a wonderful thing for Fieldale."�


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