KEENE TOWNSHIP — When Paul Phenix was just a young boy, he could recall walking along the former Whites Covered Bridge with his grandparents, who took him to a section of the bridge where he recognized a few names inscribed into the wood.
“This is where your great-grandparents signed their names on the bridge,” they said to him. “It’s where we signed our names, and your parents, and now you can sign your name.”
Phenix’s great-grandparents were gone from this world, but their memory lived on, along with the memory of so many others, in the wood of the historic 146-year old bridge.
Phenix continued the tradition with his own children and would often stop by the bridge to reflect on the unique inscription of his family history within the bridge.
But in the early hours of July 7, those inscriptions burned away with the bridge, which collapsed into the Flat River with nothing left but charred remains and stone slabs.
When Phenix learned of the bridge’s destruction by arson, he said he thought of those names and the lost opportunity to take his future grandchildren to the bridge to inscribe their names next to his.
It was then that Phenix decided something had to be done in effort to rebuild the historic bridge.
Rebuild Whites Bridge
Just three weeks after the bridge was destroyed, Phenix, 49, a disabled war veteran formerly of Belding who now lives in Alma, with the help of several others, has launched a campaign to rebuild the bridge that has quickly gathered a large following.
“I want to get this bridge rebuilt, I will get this bridge rebuilt,” Phenix said. “I’ve had naysayers say to me, ‘it’s not going to be the same. You can never get those signatures back,’ but I tell them, we’re bridging generations here. Even though we can’t bring back those people and have them resign it, we’re going to be making new history.”
Phenix has taken on a tall task.
Estimates from the Ionia County Road Commission have a rebuilding project estimated at approximately $850,000, and there’s no guarantee that a one-lane covered bridge would be approved for construction.
Ionia County Road Commission Director Dorothy Pohl said she supports Phenix and his efforts, but the commission is handcuffed financially when it comes to providing any support after flooding this past spring washed away several roads and smaller bridges that are still in need of repair.
Whites Bridge previously saw traffic of about 50 cars per day.
“She is bending over backwards to help us,” Phenix said. “She’s totally on board, but they have such a tight budget. They can’t get around to do anything with it for about three years.”
But Phenix said he’s still encouraged by members of the communities surrounding Whites Bridge, which include Belding, Greenville, Ionia, Lowell, Portland and Saranac.
Phenix began a Facebook fan page titled “Rebuild Whites Bridge” that has now surpassed 8,400 supporters.
“I almost gave up the group,” he said. “It actually got to the point where I wanted to delete the group, but people kept coming forward with such a positive spirit.”
That group spawned several other Facebook groups separated by the various surrounding communities.
According to Phenix, fundraising efforts are about to move forward as soon as his group is able to certify its status as a nonprofit organization.
“We should be incorporated hopefully this week,” he said. “Then we start on the tax exempt process which could take a while.”
Phenix said he is currently working on proper documentation, specifically the 501 C-3 tax-exempt certificate that would establish the group as a nonprofit organization.
Phenix said though people have been pouring in with requests to donate, he doesn’t want anyone to misinterpret where the money is going or how it is being used, which is why he has held off on receiving donations until after the group is certified as a non-profit.
In the meantime, the group has been selling T-shirts for $20, with $10 of that going to a fund that will eventually be turned over to the group.
“Right now we are selling T-shirts, we’re going to use that money as seed money to pay our fees,” he said. “People can donate by buying a shirt.”
The T-shirts, which read “Rebuild Whites Bridge” were recently on sale at the Ionia Free Fair and will again be on sale during the Gus Macker Tournament in Belding, which begins Friday.
Despite the large amount of funds needed and red tape to cross in order to set up a proper foundation, Phenix said he is confident the bridge will one day be rebuilt.
“When I was injured fighting in Kosovo, my doctors told me I wouldn’t be walking in two years,” he said. “That was 13 years ago and I’m still walking today. You can go ahead and tell me that bridge can’t be rebuilt, but I will tell you different. That bridge will be back. It will be a new canvas for future generations. I know it sounds like a lot, but you’ve got to look at how many communities are involved in this.”
Phenix’s confidence received a big boost this past week at the Ionia Free Fair when Gov. Rick Snyder stopped by for a visit and spoke with him.
“He promised me if I needed anything to get ahold of his office,” Phenix said. “He told me, if you need anything, we’re here to help you.”
Phenix said he told the governor he needed the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) help and permission to remove the remaining burned pieces of the bridge from the Flat River.
Less than a week later, Phenix received a phone call from a representative of the DEQ.
“They said there were contacted by the governor’s office,” he said. “Now it sounds like they’ll be able to help us in about two to three weeks.”
Phenix said once the wood is removed from the river and cleanup efforts are completed, the groups’ mentality will shift back to fundraising.
Lowell resident Diane Weemhoff was one of several volunteers who worked the group’s booth at the Ionia Free Fair and is now encouraged after what she saw from so many members of the surrounding communities.
“We just want to spread awareness to the communities that we are here and want to do everything in our power to rebuild this bridge,” she said. “A lot of people have been coming to support us.”
Weemhoff said she’s anxious to help spread awareness in Belding at Central Riverside Park at 6 p.m. Wednesday, when a meet-and-greet will be hosted by the group to inform members of the community about the group’s efforts.
“Once we get our non-profit status established, we’re going to go full-blown with lots of fundraisers and events,” she said. “We’re determined to do it.”
The Ionia County Sheriff Office confirmed on July 23 that the fire that destroyed the bridge was an arson. According to the Sheriff’s Office, the confirmation came after evidence collected from the bridge the day after the bridge was destroyed was analyzed in a crime lab and tested positive for an accelerant, with the state fire marshal concluding the fire to be an act of arson.
The crime continues to be investigated by the Ionia County Sheriff’s Office.
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to contact the Ionia County Sheriff’s Office at (616) 527-5737 or Silent Observer at (616) 527-0107.
There is currently a $7,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person or persons in this case.
Contributions for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) involved can be made to Ionia County Silent Observer account at First Bank in Ionia, located at 302 W. Main St.
The Sheriff’s Office asks that anyone choosing to donate indicate that the donation is for Whites Covered Bridge.