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For more than 50 years, as spring comes to Mansfield Village, where the old mill sits next to Big Raccoon Creek and just down a way from the Mansfield Covered Bridge, Bob Crowder has hunted the nearby forests, fields and stream banks looking for the elusive morel.
Morels are the Cadillac of American mushrooms. Because they are difficult to cultivate commercially, they can only be enjoyed by those willing to tromp the forests looking for them or those who will pay more than $20 a pound to buy them.
Crowder lives in Parke County, Ind., near the Mansfield Mill that was built in 1880. It's a pastoral area with twisting roads that run through the woods. It also has the largest collection of wooden covered bridges, some 32, in the Midwest. But this time of year, it's not the bridges that attract visitors. Foragers enjoy Parke County in the springtime because the area is abundant with the distinct-looking morels. Because of this, for the last 23 years Parke County has honored the morel with its Mansfield Village Mushroom Festival on the last full weekend of April.
Several years ago Crowder found 104 pounds of morels, much of which he sold, though he reserves a few to eat because "they're delicious."
Crowder learned to hunt morels from his father. It's not unusual for families to have hunted morels for generations. Some have their own special patches that they return to year after year. Others, like Crowder, keep an eye on the changing landscape season to season to determine where the morels might be in spring.
"Black morels, which come up first, will come up in the same place by poplar and ash trees," he said. "To get the big yellow morels that come later in the season, find an elm where the bark is kind of falling off, that means it's partially dying. When the leaves fall off in the summer, watch it, and next year, if it don't leaf, you may find a few morels. Then for the next two or three years you'll find a lot and then after that you won't find any."
There have been times when Crowder has hit the payload.
"I once found 15 to 20 pounds by one tree," he said, adding that he was sure that would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
"Mushroom hunting is a Hoosier tradition," said Anne Lynx of Rockville, the county seat. "And in this part of the state there's always bragging rights about who's found the biggest morel and who's found the first one. There are lots of stories told at the coffee shops about morel hunting."
Lynx remembers the year her younger sister, who was about 4, found the first morel of the season. "Her picture was in the paper," said Lynx.
With this type of reverence for the morel, it's no wonder that the Mansfield Village Mushroom Festival attracts almost 20,000 people.
For part of the year, Mansfield Village and the mill are closed. Now the shops and the mill are for tourists, not farmers bringing their grain to be milled or stopping at the general store to buy supplies. When the 3?-story Mansfield Roller Mill State Historic Site is open for the festival and during the spring, summer and fall, its large waterwheel grinds again, turning out black, white, red, blue and yellow cornmeal as well as buckwheat and buttermilk pancake mixes and wheat flours.
"There's been a mill on this site since 1820," said Liz Androskaut, interpretative naturalist for Raccoon SRA/Historic Mansfield Roller Mill. "And the original mill also had a general store on site like we do now."
According to Androskaut, Jacob Rohm built the current mill 123 years ago. His family owned it for the next 50 years until the Depression forced them into bankruptcy. The mill was auctioned off. Charlie Reeves purchased it at auction and he and his son ran it until 1964 when the state took over its management.
People like Crowder auction their morels off during the mushroom auction that is part of the festival.
"Last year I think we sold $20,000 worth of morels," said Pat McCarver, promoter for Parke County.
McCarver said her husband, Perry, is very good at finding morels. "On our place he'll go to a certain spot and find them."
Anne Lynx said that she and her husband have an agreement.
"My husband hunts mushrooms, but he won't eat them. I can't find them, but I eat them."
For those visiting the festival and not knowing the ways of these woods, festival organizers arrange convoys that take foragers into the woods with experts who show them how and where to hunt. Prizes are given for the biggest, the most and the best.
Lynx said that they try to offer something for everyone during the weekend festival. Besides morel hunting and the auction, there's an antique car show with 300 entrants and arts and crafts for sale.
About five miles from Mansfield is another little village, Bridgeton. It also has its own mill, built in 1870 after the original mill burned the year before.
In 1995, Mike Roe bought the old gristmill that he says is the oldest continuously operating mill west of the Allegheny Mountains. Bridgeton Mill sits on the banks of Big Raccoon Creek. The 245-foot scarlet double-spanned covered bridge, which straddles the small falls that cascade down in front of the mill, is considered to be the most photographed bridge in the Midwest.
Bridgeton is full of old-fashioned stores, including 27 buildings that are on the National Registry of Historic Places such as a country store, post office, millinery shop as well as a barbershop and a restaurant. Most of Bridgeton is open just for special events and will be open the last weekend of April. But Roe keeps the old mill open most of the year.
"There's so much history here," said Roe, pointing to a historic marker that designates a spot as the 10 O'clock Line.
"In 1809, they drew a line across the state and made all the Indians move north," said Roe. "The general stuck his sword in the ground at 10 a.m. and where the shadow fell was the line."
On the same weekend as the Mushroom Festival, Bridgeton offers a two-day Mountain Men Rendezvous.
It's advertised as a way to experience life in the early 1800s, offers tours of encampments, and demonstrations of old-time skills such as muzzle loading, tomahawk- and knife-throwing and storytelling. There's a fish fry both Saturday and Sunday nights, canoe races on Big Raccoon Creek and a chance to trade blankets.