ASHLAND, N.H. — Stoop-shouldered and shuffling, Milton Graton is the last of a kind, a legacy of the fading Americana he is dedicated to preserving.
At 78, an age when most people have retired, he is still building and restoring covered bridges.
In the last 30 years, he has put up seven and renovated another 25 bridges of the Northeast.
"I think he's fabulous," said Marion Meyer of Norton, Mass., president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges Inc. "He's the only person in the country who knows how to repair wooden covered bridges."
There are just 893 authentic and historic covered bridges remaining in the United States (according to the most recent edition of the "World Guide To Covered Bridges") and more than three-fourths of them are in six states: Pennsylvania has 231, Ohio 157, Indiana 103, Vermont 100, Oregon 54 and New Hampshire 52.
Meyer says that members of the society and historians believe that there were about 10,000 of the old bridges in the country at the turn of the century.
"We lose some through arson," she said. "We lost a lot of them because they were on roads that had to be heavily traveled and public authorities didn't think twice about destroying them. The New England bridges, especially, were built for one-way traffic, although five double-barreled ones are left in the country."
Graton is doing his best to save this vanishing feature of the American landscape for future generations. Until six years ago, he rose before the sun and often worked as late as 9 p.m. Now he quits at about supper time. He has taken two days off in two years, but his wife, Doris, understands. She is a partner in the business and keeps the books.
Graton has written a book, "The Last of the Covered Bridge Builders," and he lobbies for preservation of the bridges.
"When I go to see the governor, I go with my overalls on, like this," he said, indicating his blue work clothes.
Of his work, he says, "I have nothing better to do. I have to keep busy doing something, and I can accomplish as much as I did 10 years ago. . . .
"It's nice to know somebody isn't going to be able to come along and say you did a bum job."
And nobody ever has.
His reward, he says, is the sense of accomplishment he gets from saving a bridge that's "almost ready to fall into the river."
His workshop, housed in three barns behind his home, is also a museum. Amid the sawdust and timbers are a 1949 International truck, a 1955 Caterpillar tractor, a 40-foot trailer for hauling the lumber and tools handed down from his grandfather--a chisel that is more than 100 years old and an adz for smoothing the wood.
He works by his word. No government contracts, no bids, no bonds.
"And none of their specifications either. They're not going to write a mess of stuff that they don't know what they're talking about and have us follow their specifications. They know what they read in a book someplace, but they can't tell a piece of green wood from a piece of dry wood."
The only specifications he follows are those of the original bridges, and some of them were built 160 years ago.
While Graton was working in the rigging business in the years following World War II, he was asked to move a bridge that had been closed, and ended up buying it for $50.
"That was my first experience.
"I had to take it out of the river even though I had no use for it. When I took it apart, the joints all looked nice and white after 100 years. I thought the stuff should be saved. When you can see the traces of good workmanship all through it, you shouldn't let their work go to hell."
He has learned, he says, not by doing but by undoing.
"You undo the work of the old masters and see how they left it 100 years ago and they went home and died. It's nice to admire what they did, to make a new piece to replace a broken or rotted piece."
The quality of Graton's own work is so revered that he now has three-quarters of a million dollars in business. "Even if you're a pick-and-shovel man, you should have some eye for grace."
He says that a typical rebuilding job costs about $250,000, depending on the size of the bridge, and two of his current jobs fall into this price range. Under his close supervision, eight carpenters and laborers are restoring a 400-foot span in Bath, N.H., and a 124-foot bridge in Ware, Mass.
He treats his bridges fondly, protectively. His daughter Isabel Dittrich said, "Daddy is the only grandfather I know of who carries pictures of covered bridges instead of his grandchildren."
Graton often visits his bridges to look after them, to clean away dirt that holds moisture--the primary cause of rot--against the wood.
On one such stop, he inspected the 292-foot Blair Bridge in Campton, N.H., not far from his home. He rebuilt the 118-year-old bridge in 1975.
"See how that car rides smoothly?" he points to an auto crossing the span. "If you went through with a pickup before we fixed it, you couldn't stay on the seat. It was in terrible shape. We put in all new timbers on the bottom that cross the bridge from one side to the other, and all new floor planking. Wherever it was sagged down, we overhauled it."
Another of his projects is the 66-foot Bump Bridge, also in Campton, which he built with his 50-year-old son Arnold, his partner and heir apparent--if Graton ever decides to retire.
"My wife says I'll stop climbing around when I get to be 80. I'll keep on doing the same thing. I'll be grounded, that's all. You work without climbing."
He sums up his career:
"I think it's been successful because those who were in a position to criticize say we did all right. We left it (America) with a lot more yesterday being saved than would have been otherwise."