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Nursing Covered Bridges Back to Health : Yankee Craftsman, Family Restore a Fading Part of American History

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Milton S. Graton, 80 this month, New Hampshire’s covered bridge doctor, was explaining the health of one of his patients, the 120-year-old, 300-foot-long Blair Covered Bridge over the Pemigewasset River.

It was early morning. The air was crisp and clear, the trees blazoned in brilliant red, orange and yellow as the fall foliage was at its peak.

Several cars driven by men and women en route to work crept slowly over the sturdy 1868 bridge. Signs at each entrance cautioned:

"$5 FINE FOR RIDING OR DRIVING ON THE BRIDGE FASTER THAN A WALK.”

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Graton brought the Blair Bridge back to life from its death bed 10 years ago.

“She was terribly sick, poor thing--sagging, full of rot and decay, her roof lines wavy and irregular. She was about to fall into the river. She jumped all over the place when a car rattled over her decrepit floor planks,” the old man somberly recalled.

The selectmen of the small hamlet of Campton hired the covered bridge doctor to fix the bridge without a written agreement, just a handshake and a word-is-our-bond Yankee contract, as is the custom when dealing with Graton.

It took a summer for Graton, his sons and grandsons--known as Graton Associates--to restore the bridge to its original splendor.

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“Just look at her now,” said this craftsman without peer, describing the job done as he pointed with pride to the fine-tuned truss, sheer beams, bottom chords, joints, planks, sweep, framing and roof of the covered bridge.

“She’s as healthy today as she was when those honest and true carpenters so long ago first put her together. She’s solid as a rock. She doesn’t jump around anymore. She’ll last another 120 years, easy,” he boasted.

“When you bring a bridge like the Blair Bridge back to health, you have to jack her up and relax her until she’s loose. Then you take out the sick pieces and replace them with healthy ones.”

Graton Associates, headquartered in Milton Graton’s backyard in Ashland, N.H., on the shores of Squam Lake, where the Katharine Hepburn-Henry Fonda movie “On Golden Pond” was filmed, is a one-of-a-kind company.

It is the only full-time firm in America that repairs, restores and “builds from scratch” authentic covered bridges. In its 35 years in business, Graton Associates has repaired and restored 29 covered bridges and erected six new ones throughout New England, as well as in New York, Michigan and California.

Earlier this year, Graton, his sons and grandsons spent two months putting on a new roof and rehabbing the north side and the right abutment of the 330-foot-long Knights Ferry covered bridge in Modesto County, Calif., the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi.

“We’ll be back in California’s Gold Rush country in December finishing Knights Ferry Bridge until however long it takes us,” explains Graton. “We planned it that way to escape the cold and snow of New Hampshire this winter.”

Back in 1863, the historic bridge over the Stanislaus River had been the life blood of the tiny hamlet of Knights Ferry in the foothills of the High Sierra until it was closed to traffic in 1981, when it was no longer safe for cars or trucks.

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Graton Associates was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to restore the bridge for $492,000. “We hired Milton Graton and his family because they are the only ones doing this kind of work on a regular basis, and they have an excellent track record. Milton Graton definitely knows what he is doing,” said Patti Johnson, 46, archeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Gratons call themselves the “Last of the Covered Bridge Builders.”

“Are you the president of this outfit?” Milton Graton was asked. He laughed and replied: “No. Mother is president. She decides what we’re going to do. She has the business brains. We never solicit business. It comes to us.

“Mother sits us down and tells us what people want us to do. If she says it’s OK, it’s OK with me. We do it.” Mother is Graton’s wife of 55 years, Doris, also 80, a schoolteacher at the one-room Campton Bog School for years before her husband started restoring and building covered bridges. He was a rigger and house mover before that.

The Graton sons are Arnold, 50; Austin, 47; Stanley, 46. The couple also has two daughters, June, 51, and Isabell, 48, 14 grandchildren--some of the grandsons work on the bridges--and two great-grandchildren.

Graton says small towns, government agencies and private individuals who hire his family “trust us that we’re not going to stick them for the job, and we trust that we won’t be too foolish and not charge enough and go broke. We quote a price, then stick with it. We do no competitive bidding. If someone wants us, we shake hands. That’s it.”

On several occasions, the Gratons have been told the price they quoted was too low, and they were given more money than they asked.

Milton Graton was born in Connecticut, one of nine children of Austin and Catherine Graton. “My father died at 95. He was a master carpenter. He always told us kids, ‘Whatever you work at, try to be a perfectionist or leave it alone.’ ”

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In recognition of his work as a builder of covered bridges, New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson declared June 7, 1970, as Milton Graton Day throughout the state. He has been honored by the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges and several regional covered bridge groups.

“We do our work pure and simple, the old-fashioned way, the way the old covered bridge builders who are now in the cemeteries did it 100 years ago,” Graton insists. When Graton Associates completed construction of a new covered bridge over the Contoocook River on the campus of New England College in 1972, Covered Bridge Week was celebrated in New Hampshire as part of the dedication ceremonies.

The biggest covered bridge designed and built by Graton and his sons was the $240,000, 240-foot-long Holz-Brucke covered bridge erected in 1979 at Frankenmuth, Mich. “It has two lanes with 5-foot-wide sidewalks on either side, takes Greyhound buses filled with people and trucks, and took us two years to complete,” the energetic builder notes.

With his 80th birthday coming up Dec. 16, does Milton Graton plan to slow down or retire?

“Can’t do either. Too much to do. We have all this heavy equipment and have to keep it working to earn its salt. We never get caught up,” he allows, adding:

“Anyway, I have this big affair with covered bridges, and I don’t want to disappoint those who built them 100 years ago. I can’t let the bridges die and fall in the river. I have to care for them and bring them back to health.”


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