BRISTOL — Robert McMillen decided it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission when he wanted to shore up the creek that runs past his house, even if he risked earning a slap on the wrist from the county.

Instead, the work he did to preserve and beautify the area where the Washington Township Ditch meets the St. Joseph River earned him a pat on the back.

Elkhart County officials recognized the efforts he took about 16 years ago by renaming the bridge that takes C.R. 8 over the ditch in May 2018. On Friday, a crew finally attached a small plaque bearing his name to the guardrail on the north side, which overlooks much of the landscaping.

McMillen died in September 2014 at age 83.

His wife, 87-year-old Peggy McMillen, as well as their children and neighbors gathered Friday afternoon to watch the plaque being put up. It was also an opportunity to remember what kind of guy Robert was.

“I’m honored. I’m elated. Bob deserved this,” Peggy said. “He would do anything to help anybody.”

Picking up the pieces

Over the course of several years, starting about three years after they built the house and moved in, Robert lined the edge of the creek bed under the bridge with broken chunks of sidewalk. He picked the pieces up in the course of his job as a tree trimmer, who often encounter roots breaking through the sidewalk.

The flat concrete slabs also climb up the side of the hill to the west, forming a staircase, with some landscaping shrubbery added by Peggy.

“There was no plan... He started down there and kept building up, with whatever sidewalk he had,” she said. “All he knew was that he had to stop the erosion. It was clear over to the road.”

The work is similar to the 3,000 paving stones Robert laid to form low walls around their house, which is in a floodplain. He removed some dead trees from around the ditch as well.

Daughter Becky Rice, who came down from Michigan for the event, explained that Robert’s aim was to find a better alternative to what the county had been doing for years to try to keep the ditch from eroding. The water channel was also shifting westward, something his work helped straighten back out.

“They were just dumping dirt down there to keep it from eroding,” she said. “My dad’s like, ‘That’s not going to happen’... Dad would find broken up pieces of cement that no one was gonna use and start layering it up. He would use anything that he could get for free.”

Peggy figures that the free price tag was one reason the county allowed the work to stay. She estimated it could have cost at least $8,000 and taken years, if ever.

“He didn’t ask permission (and) we could have gotten a fine. But it didn’t cost the county a nickel,” she said. “People stop by all the time, they think it’s a park. The guys who were bringing the dirt would stop by and thank us too. They knew it wasn’t working.” 

Taking the time

More than the blank price tag, Elkhart County Commissioner Suzie Weirick said Robert’s work was allowed to go up because no one really knew about it. 

She noted the county doesn’t encourage people to do anything to the actual structure of bridges, but said his retention wall along with his wife’s landscaping did help stop erosion under it. She added that she was impressed with the work.

“It’s very nice looking, he didn’t throw up some cinder blocks and call it a day,” Weirick said.

She said the effort to rename the bridge began around the time neighbors started getting together to discuss a proposed bike path along C.R. 8 in 2017.

Babbette Slaughter was the neighbor attributed with pushing to have the bridge named after Robert McMillen. She said Friday it was nice that the county recognized the beautification work he did with his own money and labor.

“Neighbors used to do this kind of thing,” she said. “It is becoming more rare that people take the time to make things better without being paid to do it or complaining that someone else should do it.”

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