The Man Who Saves Covered Bridges
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.