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.”
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.”
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