By Michael Wurm
PEPPERELL — Two horsemen crossing the Pepperell bridge on their way to Lexington with messages for British forces were stopped by women dressed in men’s clothing, holding muskets and pitchforks.
Thus, the story of Prudence Wright and the women of Pepperell was retold.
The “new” Pepperell covered bridge celebration last Saturday was attended by a large crowd of townsfolk enjoying patriotic music, speeches, living history and a parade of antique autos and tractors on a beautiful morning.
The event was punctuated with ceremonial volleys of musket gunfire by costumed soldiers of the 6th Middlesex Regiment and the re-enactment of the 1775 capture of a Tory officer of the British Army at the original bridge by the women’s militia, led by the heroic Wright.
Speakers included officials and residents who worked on the $7.8 million project. Master of ceremonies was Susan Smith, president of the Pepperell Historical Society. Speakers included Peter Shattuck, Highway superintendent, and state Rep. Robert Hargraves.
Hargraves said the project required 12 years of collaboration among Pepperell, the state Department of Transportation and the Legislature.
The struggle to get the state to rebuild a “covered” bridge was a long one. Though he has moved on to new challenges, former town engineer Bob Lee was at the forefront of the effort. Before he left, he said the new bridge is more authentic than the bridge it replaced.
Hargraves added, “thank you, people of Pepperell, for all of your patience.”
The Covered Bridge Committee organized the event and continues to provide volunteer support for the project and the Prudence Wright Overlook park site beside the bridge. Speakers noted the involvement of these volunteers as being critical to the success of the project.
Historian Ron Karr of the Pepperell Historical Commission noted that the history of the site precedes the first bridge being built around 1742, referring to the thousands of years that Native Americans and then early colonists crossed the Nashua River by fording the water.
By the time a new bridge was needed in the 1840s, the town was able to replace it with a covered bridge. The first covered bridge lasted from 1847 until its closure in 1958. The second covered bridge, the Chester Waterous Bridge, lasted from 1963 to 2008. The new bridge means that once again, Pepperell is home to the only wooden covered bridge in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River.
Karr said that the development of the covered bridge was very important.
“Exposed to the elements, wooden (uncovered) bridges might need to be replaced in 10 years,” he said.
The bridges are not only nostalgic, but functional, too, he added.
The Prudence Wright event was based on facts and a bit of dramatic interpretation.
The men of the town had been drawn away by the call for Minutemen to Concord to assist in its defense against the British army after the first shots of the Revolution were fired in Lexington on April 19, 1775.
A Tory army officer and an accomplice carrying messages to the British army attempted to cross the bridge days later. But the women, led by their captain, Wright, wife of a Minuteman, ambushed the Tory and another man on horseback as they crossed the bridge.
The spectators saw the two men riding down Groton Street from the north side of the Nashua River before they were surprised by the women at the south end of the bridge. Verbal threats were traded, but no gunfire. Realizing they were greatly outnumbered, the two men surrendered.
The second rider, allegedly one of Wright’s brothers, was allowed to escape, while Wright and the women brigade arrested the Tory officer.
To honor Wright, the town also dedicated the Prudence Wright Overlook adjacent to the south side of the river and the bridge site where she became an early American hero.
It is a three-acre parcel with an exhibit and a memorial plaque, and a display of a large fragment of the original covered bridge that was built around 1847. This new public parcel was created as part of the covered bridge project.