Bridgewright Continues Family Craft

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on June 17, 2001

Stan Graton stands on the decking of a covered bridge in Rumney, N.H, watching a trio of workers inch a huge truss into place high in the webbing of roof timbers. He watches until the truss is wedged in place, then waves his approval. As the crew bolts in the timber, Stan walks to his pickup, satisfied the job is correctly done.

If anyone knows how to build a covered bridge, its Stan Graton, a third generation New Hampshire bridgewright whose family has builtor restoredmore than 50 covered bridges in the last half century. It began in 1954, when Stans grandfather, Milton Graton, was asked to remove a derelict bridge. In tearing the bridge down, Milton was so impressed with the precision of the joinery that he had something of an epiphany. The decisive moment, preserved in family lore, occurred when Milton separated the ancient timbers and found the tenons as new as if they were freshly sawn. So accurately had they been cut that a centurys worth of rain and snow hadnt penetrated the wood.

My grandfather was amazed at the craftsmanship in the bridge, Stan says. He thought it was a shame to destroy such a part of history. Thats how he got started in the crusade of saving them, rallying community support to rehabilitate covered bridges. He was wholeheartedly devoted to this for the rest of his life.

Timbers in those early bridges were fastened together with mortises (holes) and tenons (projections) carved into the wood, fitted together, and held in place with wooden pegs. No nails or other metal fasteners were used. This mortise-and-tenon joinery also was employed in timber-frame houses, barns, and other pre-Industrial buildings.

Stan remembers those early days when Milton and his three sons traveled all over New England, working on a shoestringoften on credit until local bridge committees raised money from bake sales and auctions to pay for the job. The family, based in Holderness (pop. 1,735), lived at work sites in campers, and Stan still has memories of summers beside tranquil New England streams as a boy.

At 14 he was helping with the timbers, alongside his father, grandfather, uncles and cousins. Bridge building always has been a family endeavor with the Gratons, and Stans grandmother kept the books.

Although each bridge is different, the family developed a routine similar to earlier bridgewrights. First they erect a stone curbing on both riverbanks, lay across the timbers to support the bridge, then assemble the structure on the bank.

Heavy timber side frames are built flat on the ground, raised as units, and roof framing and decking are attached. The complete bridge is placed on 6-inch hardwood rollers and dragged into position by a capstan winch turned by a yoke of oxen. Stan still uses the oxen and these original hardwood rolls, along with many of his grandfathers tools.

Bridge moving is often the center of a community celebration. When the Gratons completed a bridge in Ochunkee, Ga., in 1998, the whole town turned out with their draft animals to help make the pull. Stan enjoys the grassroots interest in preservation.

Stans latest job, the Smith Bridge in Rumney, departs from tradition. Although it follows the plan of the originallost to arson in 1993it has features no other covered bridge can claim. Billed as the Worlds Strongest Covered Bridge, its engineered to withstand the weight of four loaded tractor-trailers. Unlike the original single-lane bridge, the new one accommodates two lanes of traffic.

Laminated timbers sustain the structure. While purists might sniff at the idea, Stan says laminates are a a nice mix of old and new. You can take yellow pine 20 years old and build up a 12-by-12 timber that, if you cut it whole, would come from a 200-year-old tree. We use laminated timbers exactly the way the old bridgewrights used hand-hewn ones.

Because of its weight, Smith Bridge was built over the stream rather than assembled and pulled into position. This involved a lot of rigging, as timbers up to half a ton were lifted into the superstructure. A crane was used for some of the hoisting, but the final placement was done with a combination of rope, pulleys, skill, and patience.

Indeed, patience is the main skill Stan says a bridgewright must possessthe work progresses slowly, with a crew of no more than four framers. Joints are cut by hand, and each is as meticulous as those in that first bridge Milton Graton disassembled. Although he died in 1994, Miltons love of craft endures in his descendants.

We work slowly, Stan says, and we work with pride.