Every now and then, Sidney B. Pepe of Fort Wayne would load his wife and kids in the family Ford and set out on the open road.
Michael Pepe (pronounced Pape) and his brother Doug would sit in the back seat and try to spot their destination – one of more than 600 covered bridges their father would visit and photograph during his lifetime.
I remember riding in the car down a dusty country road, and we’d come around a corner and there would be a bridge, says Michael Pepe, now a 65-year-old forensic engineer who lives in Fishers. My brother and I would have a bet on who would see it first.
Their travels took the family around Indiana in the 1950s and 1960s until all of its covered bridges were documented, and into Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, Michael Pepe says.
After his father retired and before he died in February 2011 at the age of 90, he would go farther afield, photographing bridges on the way home from a trip to Florida or while traveling with Michael on business to Pennsylvania or visiting Doug in California.
Now, the product of Pepe’s avocational energy is enriching public knowledge as a recent acquisition of the William H. Willennar Genealogy Center in Auburn, a service of Eckhart Public Library.
The center introduced a sampling of the items at an open house Aug. 4 and is using state library grant money to catalog and digitize more than 6,000 of Pepe-related records.
Michael Pepe says his father was fascinated by anything transportation related.
I think it just represented freedom for him, to get out and see things, says Pepe, adding that his father also photographed railroad bridges, iron highway bridges and trains, trolleys and buses.
The iron bridges, especially, I think he knew they were disappearing, and he wanted to go out and capture them before they were all gone, Michael Pepe says. But I think he also wanted to capture things he remembered from his childhood that he was fond of.
A postal service employee until 1975 who also served as bookkeeper for the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, Sid Pepe, as he was known, also collected Ford memorabilia and built an elaborate model railroad that ran between bedrooms on the second floor of his home along Tonkel Road, his son said.
Sid Pepe also served as treasurer of the Lincoln Highway Historical Society and was involved in the Three Rivers Railroad Heritage Council and the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.
It was through a connection he made with another avid supporter of the museum that his collection came to the public, says Darcy Davidson, a genealogy services supervisor helping to curate Pepe’s material.
She says through his volunteer work Pepe got to know Auburn attorney John Martin Smith and chose him as executor of his estate.
Smith, who had been library president and became the official Dekalb County historian in 1982, saw the value in the collection and wanted to make it available to the public, she says.
Smith and his wife, Barbara, died in an auto accident in October, before he was able to pass on much of his knowledge about the collection, Davidson says. But she says the library was able to acquire it because officials knew Smith’s intentions.
The items are significant because of Indiana’s role as a transportation hub and because of the breadth and depth of the collection, she says.
One of the interesting things is that he didn’t photograph (many of the) bridges just one time. He has photos from different decades, and you can see changes and how things degrade over time.
Davidson says when she first saw the collection, she was impressed by a photograph Pepe had of the North Manchester covered bridge in the 1930s.
I used to walk that way when I was in college, so I knew the bridge, she says. Of course, there were no houses there in the 1930s. I understand that intellectually, but to see it is another thing.
Indeed, she notes, the photos depict many bridges that are no longer in existence; of the five covered bridges that once stood in Dekalb County, only one survives, and it was moved to Conner Prairie.
In a newspaper interview in 2004, Pepe recalled as a child urging his parents to stop in small towns when travelling so he could see what color the trolley cars were – just because, he said, he was curious.
On one occasion, he added then, he and his wife, Eleanor, also now deceased, drove 700 miles just to photograph a bridge.
We’d get up early and pack a lunch of bologna, beans and coffee and drive all day, he was quoted as saying. We had some good times.
Michael Pepe says his father was meticulous about his hobby, keeping photos and clippings in scrapbooks and lists of as-yet-unphotographed bridges. He liked to cross things off his list and move on, he says.
He has a memory of his father jumping out of the car, his Argus camera in hand, snapping yet another bridge photo. He didn’t use a tripod, he says.
He did have a lot of really good pictures, and when people would ask him how he did it, he’d say, I just take a lot of them,’ he recalls.
I think he did have a sense of history. He wanted to keep these things memorialized.