“The Bridge Out Back”
by RONA MANN / Photos by Sara Klimek
Everyone has big dreams, but not everyone acts on them.
Then again, not everyone is Richard Perry.
Richard Perry had a dream for more than 25 years…a dream that one day would be realized in his own back yard. Some people have a pool. Others have a tool shed, gazebo, or elaborate garden. But Perry wasn’t interested in any of those. He loved covered bridges with a fierce passion and yearned to build one, right in his own Norwich, Connecticut backyard, a backyard he shares with Judy Zimmer, with whom he also shares his dreams and his home, eleven acres that make up Greenbriar Farm, complete with horses Pilot and Jenny and Tyrone, a goose with an attitude.
A public defender for the State of Connecticut, Perry is a very determined, very affable individual who is all at once surprised, yet with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that anyone might think this unusual, while on the other hand being absolutely delighted to show it off, sharing his dream and how it was realized, with others who appreciate and are fascinated by covered bridges.
The history of the covered bridge is a compelling one indeed. While many believe they originated in Vermont because that state is so widely known for the structural landmarks, their history is actually a great deal more ancient. Although covered bridges first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s, they actually date back thousands of years to ancient China, where hundreds of them still survive to this day. The edifices also existed in Europe since medieval times, as well as in Japan, Bulgaria, and Vietnam.
However it is here in New England that wooden bridge construction reached a pinnacle in the nineteenth century and quickly became a symbol of all things Yankee. Due to the proximity of villages in the Northeast that were centered near water sources for usage in local power mills, bridges were erected to connect communities and provide easy access to services. Early covered bridges had simple construction of trusses, later evolving into more complicated designs.
All of this then begs the age-old question of, why cover a bridge? Though some may wax poetic and say it was an old-fashioned covert place to steal a kiss, the simple, less romantic answer is protection against the weather…not just for people and animals, but for the bridge as well. Covered wooden bridges typically last longer than those exposed to the elements. Richard Perry expects, “that if properly maintained, our bridge should easily last 200 years.”
Sadly, it is not always thus. Connecticut had only a mere handful of covered bridges before Perry built his and points to the reason that, “most of them are just not well maintained.”
So, how does one start to build a covered bridge? There certainly is no erector set with directions, no model bridge kit created for the purpose. One must do a great deal of research to be both accurate and authentic, and one must have a seasoned professional like Arnold Graton, a nationally known 78 year old covered bridge builder from New Hampshire, to commandeer the project both professionally as well as authentically, as authenticity is the touchstone here. To date, Arnold M. Graton Associates, Inc. restored 65 covered bridges, built two iron truss bridges, and now with the addition of Richard and Judy’s, has built 17 timber covered bridges by hand. Arnold’s wife, Meg who builds the bridges right along with him, her son Tim, and Don Walker, says of the team, “We still get a thrill each time we build a new covered bridge. It’s still exciting every time.”
Admitting to “living like gypsies”during the building process, the Graton team stays with their project until it is completed. “We lived on Richard and Judy’s farm for a year, going home every few weeks to check on other projects. They were just wonderful to us…we really became a family during that time.” What’s next for the Graton team? “We have a big project coming up in Kentucky. We’ll be gone close to two years.” But that does not seem to present a hardship for the Graton team…it’s what they love and who they are. “We don’t know any other life. Covered bridges are truly pieces of Americana,” Meg says with obvious respect.
It took approximately 14 months for Graton and staff, aided by Perry and Zimmer to build the covered bridge on Greenbriar Farm. It meant dredging the pond in order to prepare a solid base for the bridge abutments, it meant Richard having to construct a back barn along with the Gratons so that the team could build the side trusses during punishing winter weather, it meant buying wood 12 years hence and aging it until it was ready…it meant patience. But dreams and love quite often take that kind of patience, and Richard Perry and Judy Zimmer had a large supply from which to draw.
It took every day of the first four months just to build the bridge abutments constructed of 300 tons of cut granite blocks salvaged from old barn foundations in Maine and New Hampshire, under which are five feet of various layers of stone with geo-synthetic material between them. Although most of the wood used on the bridge is hemlock, the horizontal pieces were cords of Douglas Fir that came from Oregon. The trunnels, made in Walpole, New Hampshire, were individually turned on a lathe to fit the drill holes. Gin poles, which are supported poles employing pulleys, were used to vertically lift the bridge.”We call it a Fred Flintsone crane,” laughed Meg Graton of the rudimentary tool.
The entire bridge, held together and braced with wood, was named the “Gold Mine Bridge.”It was dedicated several months ago heralded by an authentic old fashioned bridge pull in which two yoked oxen from nearby Stonington pulled the bridge into place, much to the delight of the more than 400 spectators including members of regional and national covered bridge societies.
“It feels like it’s always been there,” muses Judy, looking at the labor of love with just that in her eyes.
The Gold Mine bridge is 60 feet long by 18 feet wide and weighs 50 tons. It is a Town lattice bridge, a style patented by architect Ithiel Town in 1820 and is a form of truss bridge that trusses a large number of small and closely spaced diagonal elements, forming a lattice. The bridge has an exaggerated 13 degree camber (curve), although most are flat. No cement has been used anywhere, which indeed makes this covered bridge traditional.
Perry’s plans for it are vague at the moment. “Let the bridge evolve into what it’s going to be,” he says with a smile. Judy Zimmer, however, has some plans and has already had requests for weddings, receptions, and parties on and around the bridge. She is contemplating options of erecting a tent and allowing the public to enjoy their special events on Greenbriar Farm.
The sun is beginning to set this evening on the newest covered bridge in the United States. The winter wind blows strong from the northeast, and it’s time to bring the horses in, say goodnight to Tyrone, and give oneself up to the warmth of the house. As the sun begins its final descent, transforming itself into a red winter ball against a nearly darkened sky, Richard Perry and Judy Zimmer will soon be doing what most other families in Norwich will be doing this winter night. They will prepare dinner and settle in for evening activities before retiring.
When Perry and Zimmer look out the big picture window before the sky goes completely dark, together they will gaze upon years of dreams, that with hard work and Yankee determination, became stunning reality. The Gold Mine Covered Bridge…their own personal link to the past, that will in time become their own legacy for the future.
What belongs to everyone, belongs to no one.
The “bridge out back” may be seen at 128 Wawecus Hill Road in Norwich. For questions or more information, contact Richard at (860) 889-9850
Arnold M. Graton & Associates, Inc. may be reached: (603) 968-3621