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Research Leads To Newtown-One Man's Quest To Rediscover Covered Bridges



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Research Leads To Newtown—

One Man’s Quest To Rediscover Covered Bridges

By Shannon Hicks

Nature photographer and researcher Warren H. White showed up at a Saw Mill Road home Tuesday morning. Donna Kearn Ball was expecting him.

Well, not exactly, but she was not surprised at his request, either. Mrs Ball and her husband Roger live on the Saw Mill Road property with a covered bridge in its backyard. When Mr White told Mrs Ball that he was hoping to take some pictures of the historic bridge, she was not surprised. But when Mr White explained what he was going to be doing with his photos and some subsequent research on the Saw Mill Road property, it was Mrs Ball’s turn to be caught off guard.

Mr White, who lives in Florida, will be traveling across New England until early this fall. He is working on his second book. The author of Covered Bridges in the Southeastern United States, Mr White is working on a similar volume that will cover the six states of New England.

Connecticut is not the first place people think of at the mention of “covered bridge.” Vermont and New Hampshire each have dozens of historic examples, but there are three that call our state home. Thanks to this, and a number of nonhistoric yet authentic examples, Connecticut will have a place in the forthcoming Covered Bridges in the New England States. Warren H. White just needs to finish visiting and inspecting each of the covered bridges in New England.

He has a list of 534 known examples to check out.

“We get people two or three times a year coming to our door hoping to take a picture or two of the bridge,” Mrs Ball said Tuesday morning. “But this is a whole different approach.”

Described as “a comprehensive illustrated catalog,” Covered Bridges in the Southeastern United States is the result of 2½ years of work by Mr White, who put more than 30,000 miles on his motor home during the course of his travels.

The Balls have a small library of books concerning covered bridges. This may be the first time their bridge is included in a book.

Mr White, who is 68 and semiretired, expects to spend at least $4,000 on gas and add another 25,000 miles to his Air Cruiser — in which he is living and working out of while on the road. He will take about 8,600 photos on his current trip. He left home on March 12.

There are approximately 850 historic bridges remaining in the United States. Probably 75 percent, says Mr White, are located within the Northeast and Midwest regions.

Connecticut is home to three historic bridges. By this week Mr White had been to Bull Bridge, built in 1842, off Route 7 in Kent; and West Cornwall Bridge (1841). The third historical bridge in the state, Comstock Bridge in West Winchester (1873), was yet to be visited.

“There seems to be a real need for accuracy in getting information about covered bridges accurate and updated,” Mr White said on Tuesday while wrapping his hands around a mug of coffee, trying to warm up. Before sitting down to talk about his project the photographer had been outside the Ball home doing what he does for every bridge: measuring, making notes, observing, and photographing.

To take his photo of The Martin Sealander Bridge, Mr White stepped right into the stream running under the bridge and set up his tripod. Between the work from the stream and the research outdoors, he was cold and a little damp when he stepped back into the Balls’ home to talk about his work.

“I want photos of the bridges’ spans, with water running under them, not the land leading into the bridge,” Mr White explained. His first book offers a center chapter of 32 color plates with 55 photographs. There are another 65 black and white images throughout the book, and he is hoping the next volume will have at least an equal number of images.

He prefers using slide film rather than 35 mm negative film. Slide film is a little more forgiving, especially when the weather is overcast and/or with precipitation — as it was when he was working in Newtown on Tuesday morning.

Mr White arrived in Danbury on Monday, and spent time that afternoon tracking the owner of the covered bridge at the opening of the aptly named Covered Bridge Road in Hawleyville. The property owner was not around, Mr White said, so he took photos, double-checked measurements and other details against current records, and has been trying to contact that bridge’s owner by telephone to receive permission to use a photo of the Hawleyville bridge in his book.

According to his research, The Stanley Simon Bridge in Hawleyville is registered as a kingpost truss bridge. Mr White discovered on Monday that it is actually a stringer bridge — a bridge with a longitudinal timber or beam supporting the bridge over its span. This is exactly the kind of error Mr White’s books seek to correct.

He visited the Balls first thing Tuesday morning.

Donna and Roger Ball live in a house built in 1961 on the grounds of what used to be one of the town’s sawmills. That summer, the builder Martin Sealander turned the sawmill on the former Nichols estate into a home.

The mill had dated to the 17th Century and was originally owned by the Fairchild family, who owned “extensive tracts of land in the Taunton district,” reported The Newtown Bee in an article about the mill’s conversion in the issue dated August 4, 1961. That mill cut the lumber for many of Newtown’s oldest homes.

The water wheel had been replaced by late in the 1700s by a water turbine, and a cider mill was later added.

“The shape of the mill has been retained somewhat,” wrote the anonymous Bee reporter, “but modern living quarters now replace the log, grist and cider mill operations… In keeping with its past, a small covered bridge now spans the [waterfall] as a unique summer house. The turbine reposes in the middle of the back yard as an appropriately decorative fountain and the old timbers appear in massive splendor in the ceilings.”

The bridge behind the Ball home is a stringer bridge, like its Hawleyville counterpart about a mile away. Today the wonderful structure has a slow pond on its south side, a flowing waterfall on its north side. A pair of hammocks hangs just inside the east portal, waiting for the warm weather to return.

“We live out there in the summer,” Mrs Ball said. “We absolutely love it.”


Covering Bridges:

A Major Project

Nature photographer Warren H. White was in the Smoky Mountains National Park during the fall of 1999, taking photos while enjoying a one-week vacation. He found some covered bridges in Georgia and took photos of those, and then could not find enough information that seemed to correspond with what he had been photographing.

When he went back to those bridges with a tape measure, he found that most sources he had been reading had incorrect information.

Eventually he contacted The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges (NSPCB), and discovered a need for an updated, accurate reference source.

“Most books are on the county or state levels,” Mr White said. “Most tend to be just a small smattering of bridges.” Many books, he said, also seem to repeat information — correct or not — that was already printed in previous books. His references dated back to the 1930s.

“I read through a number of books and can see where someone way back may have said things, and books published after that just picked up the same information without checking it,” said Mr White. “Information was just passed from writer to writer. Very few writers did their own legwork.”

While reading about covered bridges Mr White found Brenda Krekeler’s 1989 book Covered Bridges Today.

“That was about the only book with any substance in terms of historic books in a large geographical area,” Mr White said. So he and NSPCB agreed it was time to create an even larger, more accurate book.

Surroundings also change, even when they are originally reported correctly. Names of roads change, bridge names can change with new owners and generations, local landmarks used for locating bridges can burn or fall down, even the names of waterways can change over time.

“The society felt this would be a valuable tool,” said Mr White, who was the first researcher to tackle bridges of the entire southeastern region of the United States. He and the society originally toyed with the idea of doing a book to cover the entire country, but it would have been a mammoth publication. As it is, his book covering the southeastern states runs 214 pages.

Covered Bridges in the Southeastern United States offers chapters on 11 states. Twelve if you count the “chapter” for Mississippi. It is one page long, with one paragraph that opens, “There are no known extant covered bridges in Mississippi.”

Not listed in the book are historic covered bridges that have succumbed to age. The book concerns only bridges that are still extant. Bridges are categorized into one of four classes: authentic historic, authentic modern, nonauthentic historic, and nonauthentic modern.

The book — and the subsequent New England edition — is arranged by state, then by county and alphabetically by bridge name. Every entry then includes brief statistics (type of bridge; World Guide Covered Bridge Number, a number that is explained in his Introduction; its construction date; the builder’s name, when known; measurements; any alternate names for the bridge; and its location), text including history and local lore, and directions to each bridge.

There is also a two-page glossary.

In his introduction Mr White is also careful to point out that where contradictions existed during his work, his information “is the most accurate based on available date, observations, and finally, the author’s experience and judgment.” He welcomes notice of errors as well as information on new bridges.

While researching for the Southeastern book Mr White took a number of shorter trips, returning home every few weeks. This time around the plan is for a one-shot deal. He plotted this current trip last year, and has a three-inch binder filled with every detail.

While he is on the road, Mr White’s wife Pat is home in Florida. His first book is dedicated to her “for her forbearance and I wandered around the southeastern states for 166 days and nights over several trips during 2½ years, researching each covered bridge in this book. Happily, we are still married.”

From Newtown early Tuesday afternoon Mr White was heading southeast toward Redding, where he hoped to locate and examine a privately owned bridge he had been told about by The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges.

There are more than 500 bridges remaining on Mr White’s list before he heads home. Some will be discounted once he visits them — like the Johnsonville bridge in East Haddam, which was originally on his “historic” list — but there will also be new discoveries along the way. That is the joy of doing your own legwork.

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