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 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.”