Early 19th-century-style covered bridge being constructed in Norwich

Norwich — No one thinks of Norwich when the topic of historic covered bridges comes up, but Richard Perry and Judy Zimmer are looking to change that with construction underway now on a 60-foot-long, 18-foot-wide early 19th-century-style covered bridge at the couple’s horse farm at 128 Wawecus Hill Road.

Perry and Zimmer have been fans of covered bridges for the past 25 years, and “make the circuit” viewing the many covered bridges in New Hampshire when they stay at their house in the northern New England state.

Perry, a public defender at New London Superior Court, now is seeing his 25-year dream come true to build an authentic wooden covered bridge over a small pond and Gardner Brook at the 11-acre property he and his wife own in a wooded area about a mile from the Bozrah town line.

Perry said he didn’t have a specific use for the bridge in mind, although it would lead to trails in the woods. He and Zimmer are thinking about starting a business, perhaps horse boarding and riding using those trails. And he plans to open the bridge to the public and school groups at times. The structure will be visible from Wawecus Hill Road.

Zimmer looks forward to her best view of the bridge from her kitchen window.

Perry plans to invite local and regional VIPs to a dedication ceremony upon completion of the project, probably the summer of 2016.

But in about one to two months, construction will reach a point where it could draw a crowd of onlookers. Once the massive wooden structure is assembled and moved into position on shore, Perry will hire a team of oxen to haul the structure across the pond into place.

“I’m looking for oxen now,” he said.

Perry started putting his bridge dream into action about two years ago, when he borrowed the book “The Last of the Covered Bridge Builders,” from Otis Library. The book was written by Milton S. Graton of New Hampshire.

Perry contacted Arnold M. Graton Associates, headed by Milton’s son. The Gratons founded the company in the 1950s, when flood control measures were heating up across the country. Many historic wooden covered bridges had been damaged in floods and needed restoration.

Since Arnold Graton is approaching age 78, Perry felt the need to hurry.

“This could be one of the last wooden covered bridges built in the country,” Perry said.

Members of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, including the group’s president, are monitoring the construction to certify that the bridge is being built using period methods and materials.

The Graton firm was just finishing up a bridge in Kentucky last summer, so Arnold and his wife, Meg Graton stopped in Norwich on their way home to New Hampshire to check out the property. Perry obtained permits, and the project started around Labor Day.

First, the group erected a work barn — the barn’s roof trusses are sections of old covered bridges — near Gardner Brook. The bitter cold and wet winter weather did not slow the team down, Perry said.

“They work in anything,” he said, shaking his head in admiration.

On Thursday, society members Bob and Betty Pauwels of Franklin, N.H., made the trek to Norwich to watch construction. Betty Pauwels is a photographer and has photographed all 52 covered bridges in New Hampshire.

“It’s such an honor to be here,” she said. “We’re so fond of Meg and Arnold.”

The Graton team of four workers — Arnold, Meg, her son, Tim Dansereau and Don Walker — with Perry helping as much as he could, prepared to use early 19th century techniques to lift the two latticed side panels to upright positions. The group first had to erect five telephone poles with straps and pulleys attached to be used to raise the panels.

The side panels were constructed of hemlock and assembled using about 600 large wooden pegs called trunnels, some 24 inches long, made of white oak.

Once that is done, the group will place the panels 18 feet apart and attach the floor boards and then the roof trusses. Then they will roll the sections over 4-inch wooden roller logs some 80 to 100 feet to the bridge abutments and get ready for the oxen to pull over the abutments already in place.

Those bridge abutments were constructed using huge granite blocks collected from old foundations of buildings and other structures from Maine and New Hampshire and fitted neatly into place with no mortar. Each abutment has about 300 tons of granite, Perry said.

Beneath the water line, the structures have 4 feet of stone and support material.

Arnold Graton’s precision and meticulous dedication to historic construction methods became evident in one minor incident recounted by Perry on Thursday. Inspecting one load of granite, Graton discovered a “tiny” piece of concrete in the pile.

“What’s this?” he asked Perry with disdain before chucking away the modern contaminant.

Graton speaks of his craft with stereotypical New Hampshire understatement and humility. While many people find covered bridges to be romantic throwbacks to simpler times, Graton sees engineering that has survived for centuries.

Asked how he learned those construction methods, he said the bridges themselves have been his models.

“You mostly just copy what the old timers did. You have a full 3-D drawing,” he said of the historic bridges. “If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t still be here.”

Perry’s bridge is the 17th new bridge the Graton firm has constructed, the largest being a 365-foot-long bridge in California. Arnold Graton said the firm also has restored some 50 or 60 old bridges.

The function of covered bridges is simple, Graton said: “It’s like your house. You keep the roof tight, and it will last forever.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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