STONE BRIDGES IN COWLEY COUNTY.
[From The Wichita Eagle, Monday, October 2, 2000, Page 9A.]
[Article shows picture: Gary Gackstatter holds a pen-and-ink drawing he made of the Badger Creek bridge near Arkansas City. The bridge is one of 15 arched, stone bridges in Cowley County. Gackstatter has researched the bridges and guides tours of them.]
[Article shows another picture: The Silver Creek bridge in Cowley County is one of the bridges featured on a tour sponsored by the Arkansas City Area Arts Council. The “Bridges of Cowley County” tours have become so popular that tickets usually sell out quickly and people are placed on waiting lists. People come from as far as Wyoming, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa to see the stone bridges.]
[Article has information—
IF YOU GO
The first tour begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. Another begins at 2 p.m. and ends at 6 p.m. The tours start and end at the Denton Art Center, 525 N. Fourth St., Arkansas City.
The tour costs $22. It includes a catered chuckwagon meal and musical entertainment. Gary Gackstatter’s pen-and-ink drawings of the bridges will be available for purchase, ranging from $100 to $400. Because tickets sell out quickly, some people may be placed on a waiting list for a tour at a later date. For information, (316) 442-5895.]
Calmed by the bridges of Cowley County.
After a nearly deadly car accident, Gary Gackstatter and his son sought solace in the traffic-free backroads near home. In the process, they discovered the old, graceful bridges left behind by Cowley County’s pioneers.
BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle
Four years ago, Gary and Evan Gackstatter’s lives almost ended at an intersection.
Afterward, in a roundabout way, Gary Gackstatter discovered the stone bridges of Cowley County and how they could be a bridge to healing, as well. Now, he shares his discovery with others through tours that draw participants from far and wide.
The story begins in February 1996.
They were in Wichita at First and Oliver when a Suburban broadsided their Mazda pickup on the passenger side.
Gary suffered scratches and cuts. For 11-year-old Evan, it was much worse.
“Bits of his brain had been exposed to the air, and we didn’t know for a time after whether he would live or not,” Gary says.
Doctors were able to repair the damage, using three surgical plates to reinforce Evan’s shattered skull. Then the Gackstatters came home.
But they had to heal emotionally—especially Gary, who had flashbacks and nightmares. And so, to calm their minds, they’d go driving along the dirt roads of Cowley County—where there was no traffic, no fear of being hit by another vehicle.
They’d drive past farmsteads, groves of trees, pasturelands and crops. Before they’d come to an intersection, Gary Gackstatter would stop the car and ask Evan which direction they should go next.
He’d tell his dad, and they would go down that road—together.
That’s when they began to see the bridges—the stone bridges of Cowley County. Over the next few years, they would discover 15 of them.
Built by German and Russian artisans from about 1890 to 1917, the bridges range from one to three arches.
They were assembled without cranes or the heavy construction equipment that crews use today. With only horses and men who knew how to work with rock, each 800- to 1,000-pound stone was placed just so.
The bridge builders would divert the water in the creeks and streams, build large earth mounds and place the huge limestone blocks one by one around the mounds—filling in with mortar as they needed to. Then, they removed the dirt, and the bridges stood on their own—
even years later when the heavy floodwaters would come or farmers driving tractors with heavy equipment would cross the bridges. They would stand—just as they have for a hundred years and just as they should for another hundred.
Evan and Gary Gackstatter explored the bridges. They traipsed up and down the banks, looking for clues.
“I just thought it was pretty fun,” said Evan, now 15 and fully recovered. “At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing. . . . I was just a little kid going along for the ride. And I just thought these bridges were huge and phenomenal.”
Gary Gackstatter, now 41 and the music instructor at Cowley County Community College, has researched the bridges through local newspapers and conversations with old men in overalls in small-town cafes. He’s also done pen-and-ink drawings of the bridges.
“Each of the bridges was built differently,” Gary Gackstatter said. “They each have their own story. Each has the personality of its builder.”
As people saw his interest and drawings, they began asking how they could find these bridges.
“I had one woman tell me that her first kiss was on the bridge of Badger Creek,” Gary Gackstatter said.
That’s how the tours for the bridges of Cowley County began.
Each fall and spring, Gackstatter leads the tours, which have become so popular that locals have trouble booking reservations. People from Wyoming, Wisconsin, Iowa instead fill the seats.
“They are extremely popular,” says Ellen Snell, executive director of both the Arkansas City Area Arts Council and Denton Art Center. It really is marvelous that we have people so excited. They tell each other through word of mouth that it is a good trip. That’s why we usually have such a long waiting list—and we honor that list for our next trips.”
The bus tours, which cost $22, take about four hours and are arranged through the Arkansas City Area Art6s Council. The next tours are scheduled for Oct. 7.
And now, the Gackstatters know that they can survive the intersections of life.
“I think it is pretty cool,” Evan Gackstatter said, “of how it all started out.”