Farm Collector

McLEAN COUNTY’S BRIDGE TRAGEDY

By Staff

The collapse of the Silver Bridge at Gallapolis, Ohio, with the
loss of many lives, recalled to many McLean countians one bridge
collapse in McLean which resulted in the death of a Beech Grove
resident.

It happened on a hot July day in 1911.

In those days, there was a large acreage of wheat grown along
the Daviess-McLean border. That, of course, was before the days of
combines. The wheat was threshed by a bulky machine called a
‘separator’ (it separated the grain from the straw and
husks) or commonly called a ‘thresher.’ The separator was
drawn from farm to farm by a ponderous and slow steam tractor. Then
when the thresher arrived at a ‘set’ where it would
operate, the power for the separator was furnished by a belt from
the steam engine’s pulley.

Hauling the bundles of wheat or rye from the shocks in the field
to the thresher set required several wagons and considerable labor.
Therefore, the farmers in a neighborhood would have an informal
agreement to swap work and help each other at threshing time.

When a thresher man arrived in a neighborhood, he would get to
thresh all the grain of the farmers in that neighborhood who were
working together.

This system was in operation in the hours that proceeded the
event of 57 years ago.

In the area of Guffie, Kentucky two threshers were operating
that day. One was owned by Dude Cox of Cleopatra, Kentucky. The
other was owned by Floyd Prewitt, a Negro who lived near Beech
Grove.

Cox was threshing on the east side of the Guffie crossroads.
Prewitt was finishing in the north side of the crossroads. But the
wheat on the west side of Guffie was waiting to be threshed. The
first set was at Bill Stiles’ farm. The first one to get there
would get all the work in the neighborhood, which included a number
of large farms.

Both of the thresher men finished about the same time, and the
race to Guffie crossroads was on. With governors off and throttles
open the steam engines and the trailing separators bumped along the
dusty country roads at a high speed of five miles an hour or maybe
even more!

Cox won the race to the crossroads by just a few feet. He headed
west to the Stiles farm. Prewitt, having lost the race for the West
Guffie neighborhood, would have no threshing to do there. There was
nothing for him to do but head for home at Beech Grove. His son,
Alney, about 22 years old, was driving the steam engine.

Just west of the Green River RECC substation is a branch of Long
Fall Creek. There was an old wooden bridge across the creek where a
modern concrete bridge now spans the stream. Many of the wooden
bridges of those times would not support a steam engine. Frequently
it would be necessary to stop and put braces under the bridge
before crossing it.

Knowing these facts, Jess Fulkerson drove his wagon down to the
bridge as the thresher outfit aproached it, with some posts for
braces in the wagon. Jess, then a 23-year-old bachelor, was working
at the John Hancock farm (where Arthur Jordan now lives.)

The elder Prewitt wanted to stop and brace the bridge. But his
son, disappointed in losing the race to Guffie-and the dependent
businesswas impatient. He decided to cross without waiting to brace
it.

Looking at the bridge, he decided that the right side was the
weakest and if the bridge was to break down it would throw the
engine to the right. So he propped his feet up on the tool boxes so
he could jump free if the engine fell to the right.

Thinking he was prepared, he started to cross the bridge.

When the engine reached the middle of the bridge, it broke. But
it fell to the left instead of the right, and Alney was not able to
jump clear. The steam engine turned over on its left side, with
Alney under it. There was no water in the creek, and the driver
fell right in the creek bed, so he was not mashed by the engine.
But, unfortunately a steam pipe punched through Alney’s thigh
and pinned him under the tractor. The steam pipes broke loose, and
steam and boiling water burned him.

Scared by the accident, the elder Prewitt did not know what to
do. Alney told him to hold the fire-box shovel beside to ward off
the steam. Seeing that the victim could not get out Fulkerson ran
up the hill to the Hancock place and got a Diston hand saw. (Few
farms were equipped with metal-cutting hack saws in those
days.)

The pain from the burns was so intense that Alney begged some of
the bystanders to knock him in the head with the axe to put him out
of his misery.

Jess ran back to the bridge and sawed the pipe that had Prewitt
pinned down. He then lifted Prewitt out from under the engine and
up the creek bank.

There, as Jess remembers, ‘Alney prayed as pretty a prayer
as I ever heard.’ Although out from under the hot engine,
Prewitt was not safe. He was seriously burned all around his body,
and of course suffering from the pierced leg.

Fulkerson ran back to Hancock’s again, where Mrs. Hancock
gave him some bed sheets to wrap Prewitt’s wounds. Then some of
the men who had gathered carried the injured man to the Lloyd
Leachman farm (then occupied by Dave Glover) where there was a
cabin occupied by a Negro farm hand.

But their efforts were fruitless, for as they turned in the gate
at Glover’s Prewitt died.

Dr. Hugh W. Gates, who had been called to treat Prewitt, arrived
after he died. He said it was the burns that killed Prewitt, and
not the leg injuries.

Today, 57 years later, Jess still has) the saw he used to cut
the steam pipe and memories of the tragic day which produced
McLean’s only bridge fatality.

(This was sent in by Vaden Troutman, Route 3, Utica, Ky. Vaden
got permission from Clyde Wills of the county weekly paper to
reprint same. Our thanks to both these men. ANNA MAE

  • Published on Nov 1, 1968
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