Covered bridges

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(HOST) Covered bridges are so much a part of Vermont’s landscape – and our daily lives – that it’s easy to forget how unusual they really are. And commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman says they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) I love covered bridges – their simple lines, sturdy timbers, the sounds they make as you pass through, but most of all, the stories they hold. They’re among our most treasured landmarks – the epitome of form and function. Stretching across streams and rivers, decades and generations, these simple, structures honor the men whose construction techniques changed the science of engineering – more through their natural born talent than any formal schooling.

Vermont claims a goodly number of them for its own – well over ten percent of the seven hundred fifty bridges still in service nationwide. One or more of them punctuates the working landscape in thirteen of our fourteen counties. They’re part of our daily existence, but covered bridges in general, are fast becoming icons of our collective past. As such, they’re objects of interpretation.

Case in point is the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit now on display at the Montshire Museum in Norwich. It’s entitled Covered Bridges: Spanning the American Landscape. This national perspective includes regional references, photographs, and assorted artifacts. It focuses on the role these wooden marvels play in our culture, heritage, and transportation.

The freestanding panels, located on the second floor of the museum, walk us through the history of the first such bridge. It was said to have been built in Philadelphia, in 1805. They describe the various truss systems and touch upon the nostalgia associated with these spans, but they generally side-step the cracker barrel debate about why these bridges were covered in the first place.

Most will agree that the distinctive coverings didn’t, and don’t contribute to the structure’s strength. The text favors the popular notion that they shielded the fundamental components of the bridge from the elements. But longstanding discussions embrace both romantic notions and practical applications. The bridges no longer provide a venue for community meetings, boxing matches and advertisements, but they still serve to protect wagonloads of hay and weary travelers from a sudden storm, present a gathering place for local kids, and afford a quiet spot for lovers. All this while admittedly working like a lady’s petticoat and protecting the underpinnings!

But to me, the real story here is about how these structures continue to affect people’s lives – our lives. Vermont’s one hundred plus covered bridges are here, now. They still take us to the Post Office, the grocery store, and the bank, as well as to the pasture, the neighbors, and grandma’s house. The question is, will they continue to link our present with our future, or will they simply become vestiges of our past? More to the point, if our covered bridges are now objects of interpretation, where the heck does that leave us? Are we next? Are the values and work ethic that built covered bridges and shaped this state becoming functional curiosities as well?

Deborah Doyle-Schechtman is a writer and historian who specializes in cultural heritage tourism and divides her time between the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom.

For more information about the exhibit —

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