Nobody bats an eye when a tourist heavy with cameras appears along the road in this tiny rural town.
More than a decade after the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" was released, thousands of people still travel to Winterset each year to trace the steps where Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep immortalized the area's covered bridges.
Each fall, an annual Covered Bridge Festival draws crowds here, and on a typical summer day, more than 150 people stop by the county's tourism office for help finding the bridges, scattered between flat fields and wide, unpaved roads.
A glance at the guest book reveals visitors from as far as the Philippines, Argentina and Germany.
"There's no admission charge and no gates, so there's no way to tell exactly how many people come. People may come and see the bridges and never step foot in here," said Chris Nolte, director of the county's tourism department.
While tourists arrive year round, the county's signature Covered Bridge Festival showcases its famed landmarks with a sprawling two-day affair that sees the sleepy town's population rise by the thousands.
Among the attractions at the festival, taking place October 14-15 this year, are an antique car show, a quilt exhibit and a craft making contest featuring everything from pottery to ironwork to dried floral arrangements.
Comforting fair foods, like homemade pies and fritters, barbecue beef and "lamb burgers" from local vendors are annual staples.
The town square is the main artery of the festival, with shuttle buses whisking visitors back and forth from off-site events. The signature excursion is a US$6 guided bus tour to the county's six remaining covered bridges.
At the pretty red Roseman Bridge instantly recognizable from the movie passengers can run their fingers along the wooden planks where the names of hundreds of couples have been carved out by past visitors who were perhaps swept away in the charm of being on a real-life Hollywood set.
In the story, Roseman is where the character Francesca Johnson leaves a note inviting Robert Kincaid to dinner.
The other bridges are not as recognizable as the Roseman; the Holliwell is the only other bridge shown in the film. But the tour guides, members of the Winterset Rotary Club, explain the history of each during the 2-hour tour.
The 1995 movie was based on a novel of the same name by Robert James Waller. The 1992 book was on bestseller lists for three years and sold more than 12 million copies.
A third bridge mentioned in the novel, the Cedar Bridge, was destroyed by an arsonist in 2002. A replica was built in 2004.
The bridges all listed on the National Register of Historic Places were originally erected in the late 1800s. They were covered to save money. Replacing the roofing and shingles was cheaper than replacing the large timbers that make up the floors.
All the bridges are within 15 minutes of each other, although the St. Charles the farthest east in Imes is a half-hour from the bridge that is farthest west, the Roseman. Only the resurrected Cedar Bridge still allows vehicle traffic.
The Northside Cafe, where Kincaid Eastwood's character was greeted with a hostile silence by locals, is unchanged in the town square. Old men in tinted glasses and overalls sit at the counter and waitresses stare blankly at strangers who walk through the door.
The draw of Winterset and its surrounding bridges by no means the nation's most historic or architecturally significant is a testament to the enduring curiosity a movie can generate about a seemingly silent corner of American life.
Madison County officials hardly trumpet the bridges. The county's tourism promotion budget is US$15,000, and Nolte is quick to point out that money also goes toward toting Winterset as the birthplace of legendary actor John Wayne.
But movies can drive tourism. New Zealand saw a surge in visitors following "The Lord of the Rings" and the Louvre in Paris initiated tours based on "The Da Vinci Code." One of the most famous American examples is Dyersville Iowa's other movie attraction just four hours east home to the baseball field featured in the "Field of Dreams."
A closer attraction is the Living History Farms Museum, about 35 miles away. Many who travel to the bridges of Madison County stop there, as all the major hotels are in nearby Des Moines.
In Winterset, which very much remains an unlikely Hollywood set, it's just the Super 8 Motel.
Source: China Daily