The Man Who Saves Covered Bridges

  In the spring of 1954, Milton Graton landed a job that would change his life and the fate of covered bridges around the country, New England especially. A structure mover out of Ashland, New Hampshire, the 46-year-old Graton had spent the better part of three decades working construction. He’d owned a trucking business, laid […]

By Ian Aldrich

Oct 25 2013


The intricate latticework and gentle but defined camber help give the Squam bridge its classic appearance.

Photo Credit : Joel Laino
  In the spring of 1954, Milton Graton landed a job that would change his life and the fate of covered bridges around the country, New England especially. A structure mover out of Ashland, New Hampshire, the 46-year-old Graton had spent the better part of three decades working construction. He’d owned a trucking business, laid pipe at military bases during the war, and built roads and tunnels. But it was as a large-scale hauler, moving buildings mainly, that Graton had earned a reputation as a skilled, hard worker offering fair prices. Which is how he ended up in Rumney, New Hampshire, a small town on the edge of the state’s White Mountains region and home to a dilapidated covered bridge. The century-old span crossed the Baker River; for many years it had sat neglected and unused. The cover boards had been stripped and the roof was shot, allowing rain to beat down on the floor. The bridge was now in private hands, and the owner wanted it moved to another part of town, where it was to be converted into a gift shop. He hired Graton to do the job. But on the night of July 3, 1954, just a day before work was set to begin, the old bridge collapsed in a heap into the river. So Graton bought the remains, with an eye toward using the still-good timbers for some future project. As he worked, he quickly came to admire the bridge’s construction. In many places the joinery had remained so tight that a century of sunlight had failed to penetrate the seams and discolor the wood. By the time he’d hauled every scrap of wood out of the river, Graton, who’d always packed a deep appreciation for the past, now felt an obligation to protect it. “I was convinced at that time,” he wrote two decades later in his book, The Last of the Covered Bridge Builders, “that to preserve the work of these great honest and true carpenters of one hundred years ago was the duty of every good citizen who would save for posterity that which would never again be reproduced.” Graton partnered with his oldest son, Arnold, and together, they took on the work that nobody else could do or, because of tight town budgets, wanted to. Around the country they roamed, often living right at the job sites, working through blistering heat or subzero temperatures so frigid that the only thing they could do to keep warm was to work a little harder. But it wasn’t just what they were building that harked back to a different era; the Gratons strove to replicate how the bridges had originally been built. They preferred hand tools over power machinery, pulled the structures into place with oxen, and cinched together the framing with long wooden pegs called trunnels, which they milled themselves. In communities such as Campton, New Hampshire, and Springfield, Vermont, the Gratons were greeted as celebrities and saviors. Crowds would gather to watch them work, and parties would break out as the men pulled the renovated bridges into place. In Woodstock, Vermont, in 1968–69, the Gratons made history when they built Middle Bridge, the first new covered bridge constructed in this country in the 20th century. It was 20° below when father and son pounded in the last roof shingles. When age slowed Milton down, Arnold helmed the projects. Then, when Milton passed away in 1994, his son took over. In all, he has rehabbed some 65 covered bridges and built another 16 new ones from scratch. And their significance means as much to him as they did to his dad. “I like old stuff,” he says. “And I think it’s important to have a history behind us that we can use as we go ahead, too.”

The fact that Arnold Graton likes old things isn’t all that surprising. Preservation in some form or another is interwoven into nearly every facet of his life. The house he shares with his wife, Meg, is one his father built, and he’s called it home for most of his 76 years. He still drives his 1955 Ford pickup, which he bought new in high school and has since racked up 418,000 miles on the odometer, as well as his dad’s 1949 International truck. Arnold’s work tractors include a 1948 Minneapolis, a 60-year-old Ferguson, and a ’78 Ford, in addition to his heavier modern equipment. In the second-floor office of his home, where he uses Civil War–era cast-iron bridge washers as paperweights, is a small chalkboard Arnold got when he was a kid. On it there’s a chalk drawing he did of a truck. He made it 70 years ago. “I’m not sure how it survived,” he says with a slight laugh. While Milton didn’t mind the attention his covered-bridge work received (he was interviewed by CBS’s Charles Kuralt several times), Arnold is more reserved. “I’m not very good at this,” he told me when I first sat down with him in the kitchen of his home. When he speaks, he does so in a baritone voice—slowly, thoughtfully, with no excess. “He never loses his temper,” says Tim Dansereau, Arnold’s 21-year-old stepson, who works for him. With Meg and longtime employee Don Walker, Dansereau is one of Arnold’s three regular employees. “When he gives you something to do, he’ll give you his opinion and then ask for yours.” He laughs: “And if he thinks your opinion is no good, he’ll make you do it his way.” Behind Arnold’s house in Holderness is the business center of his operation: two big barns, one large enough to house a disassembled bridge and put it back together again, which the Graton crew regularly does. Both buildings are neatly organized but packed with cars, boats, cribbing, and other lumber. In the larger barn are many of his father’s old tools, including chisels, planes, and the crosscut saw he used to finish off joints. There’s also a scattering of power tools, because, as Arnold likes to point out, “the world won’t wait for you if you try to use just hand tools.” As it was for Milton, bridge renovation is more than just carpentry. That’s because the bridges themselves are more than just timbers and trunnels. How they were built, and why they were built, tell a story—about how we once lived, how we worked, how we made things. In rural towns up and down New England, covered bridges transformed communities. They shortened travel between family members, brought farmers closer to markets, and just made the world a little bigger for so many 19th-century Americans. But once a bridge is gone, a lot of that important stuff vanishes with it. “They’re who we are,” Arnold says. “And there’s an awful lot of technology in these old bridges—how they made something so simple do such a good job for 100 years.” The same could be said for the Gratons. Their work and their knowledge, says David Wright, longtime president of the Vermont-based National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, serve as a link, about the only remaining link we have, to 19th-century bridge building. When their business started, covered bridges were at a precipitous crossroad. Many of them hadn’t been touched almost since they were built, and a movement to preserve the old structures was only just getting off the ground. In many towns, the inclination was to take down these wooden bridges and replace them with steel or concrete spans. Milton, and then Arnold, helped change that thinking. “I can’t think of any builders who’ve done as much for covered-bridge work as the Gratons,” Wright says. “The original old bridges would have been erased. They might have looked like covered bridges, but because they [wouldn’t have been] renovated exactly how they were built, they wouldn’t have been the same.” Asking Arnold which bridge has been his favorite to work on is like asking which of his three sons he favors the most. But some projects stick out more than others. In Newport, New Hampshire, crowds poured out seemingly every day onto the banks of the Sugar River to watch the Gratons build a replica of the Corbin covered bridge, a 158-year-old span destroyed by arsonists in May 1993. Then, on a sunny October day, when the new span was pulled into place, a weekend festival kicked off to mark the occasion, the biggest event in the town’s history. It was much the same in Highlands, North Carolina. There, Arnold found a new home for the Bagley Bridge, which he and his dad had purchased from the town of Warner, New Hampshire, in 1966 for a dollar. They took it apart and put it in storage. Forty-two years later, Arnold hauled the timbers south and erected the old bridge at the site of a museum in the same way it had stood before. “I had mixed feelings about seeing a New Hampshire bridge moved to North Carolina,” he says. “But I’d offered it back to the town several times for free, and each time they said no. So it was good to see somebody put it to work.”

But of all the bridges Arnold Graton has placed his hands on, the one that may just mean the most is the one down the road from his house. The Squam River Bridge in Ashland was constructed in 1990, and it’s the last new bridge Arnold built with his dad. Even though early Alzheimer’s had slowed him, Milton was at the site most days, looking over the work, offering advice when he could. The end result was something that has all the hallmarks of a Graton bridge: its gentle but defined camber, its intricate latticework, its covered walkway, the more than 1,100 trunnels, many of them as long as 27 inches, used to hold the structure together. As much of a premium as the Gratons have always placed on how a bridge is constructed, the importance of how it looks and photographs has also never been lost on them. On a mid-September day, Arnold climbs into his ’55 Ford to make the short journey to the bridge. A few boats are docked on the river below, and at the water’s edge a woman is looking up at the 61-foot span with her camera. “It’s so beautiful!” she exclaims, huffing her way back to the road. For Arnold Graton, each bridge is a little time capsule representing a particular moment of his life. Back when he built this bridge, he was in his mid-fifties, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to put in a 15-hour day, grab a little sleep, then do it all over again. Now he’s more inclined to take a day off, even forgo working through an entire winter. “I can’t climb around like I used to,” he says. “I’m not as flexible. I fear falling more than I used to. I don’t dare jump from one timber to another or one ladder to the next.” It’s one of the reasons why his stepson, Tim, has shouldered more of the work in recent years. Still, Arnold isn’t afraid to push himself when it’s needed. Last fall, when the town of Ashland needed some emergency work done on a concrete bridge, Arnold worked until midnight, pouring cement. “My hands were cold, but the town needed it done,” he says matter-of-factly. Besides, he has a preference for staying busy. In December he headed down to Kentucky to rebuild a covered bridge in the river town of Maysville. A few months later he returned to check on his house and put in a last-minute bid for a job in nearby Campton, which he eventually landed. Then in June he headed to Dayton, Ohio, where he was an honored speaker at the Second National Covered Bridge Conference. On this day, Arnold takes his time walking across the Squam River Bridge. A few years ago he redid the roof, and now it looks as though the walkway will need some attention. “They get torn up with the snow machines,” he says. Yet it’s not hard to detect some admiration from the builder for the way his bridge has held up. “I suppose I get attached to them,” he says. “I like to see them stay here and stay in good shape. It’s nice to know you accomplished something that will be around for a while.”