Frankenmuth, Michigan, draws visitors to their massive Bronner's Christmas Store and huge all-you-can-eat chicken dinner restaurants, but these aren't the only larger-than-life attractions in this small Michigan town.
A long covered bridge leading from the town's main street to the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Frankenmuth's festival grounds was the dream of brothers Eddie and Tiny Zehnder, who saw the recreation of a classic 19th century covered bridge as a perfect addition to the Old World-style German village and the Zehnder's Bavarian Inn restaurant/hotel complex.
Eddie first talked about building a covered bridge over the Cass River in the early 1960s. Tiny saw an article about an architect who built or rebuilt covered bridges in the early 1970s, and the brothers began working to make their dream bridge a reality.
They contacted architect and bridge builder Milton Graton of Ashland, New Hampshire, who began working wooden covered bridges in 1954, to create their Holz Brücke (German for "wooden bridge").
The plan called for an impressive two-lane, 239-foot bridge flanked by two covered pedestrian walkways, but the contract was just two handwritten pages that included a simple sketch of a Town lattice-style bridge. Eddie Zehnder considered Graton an artist and said the Zehnders didn't find it unusual that the plans would be mostly in Graton's head, rather than rendered as a complex contract and series of drawings.
Graton enlisted his son and grandson to work on the bridge, a project they started in August of 1978. Milton Graton was 70 years old when he started work on the Zehnders' bridge, but he was a real hands-on architect who still climbed atop his bridge's roof to work (he continued to climb atop his bridges to work until he was 80 years old).
Graton used traditional covered bridge building methods to construct a three-span Town lattice truss bridge with traditional materials. The 230-ton bridge contains 163,288 board feet of wood and only about 1,000 pounds of non-wood material like the nails attaching 25,000 cedar shingles to the structure's roof. Graton used mostly Douglas fir for the trusses, floor joists, rafters, and other areas anticipated as subject to the most wear. He also used other woods like pine, oak, and spruce in the bridge's construction. I even saw many areas where Graton also apparently used wooden pegs rather than nails in the bridge's construction.
Nineteen-century bridge builders built their spans on land and placed the bridges over water after finishing construction. Graton worked the same way, building the Zehnder bridge on the east side of the river and using a team of oxen with a system of equipment like pulleys that allowed the team to pull loads normally requiring as many as 180 oxen. The pull moved at a three-inches-per-minute rate and took 12 days to complete in January of 1980.
The span cost $1.1 million and has an 18-ton working load. Graton told a local newspaper that the bridge could last at least 500 years if properly maintained.
Zehnder's Holz Brücke, dedicated in September of 1980, continues to carry hundreds of thousands of vehicles and pedestrians across the Cass River each year.
Check out my Tuesday story, Frankenmuth celebrates it German heritage year round, or read more about our Frankenmuth experiences in my earlier stories, Frankenmuth's Bavarian Inn serves up chicken, German beer and nostalgia in Michigan, Enjoy a quick respite at Bavarian Inn Lodge, and Bronner's keeps the lights on for Santa in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
I also have a number of other stories about covered bridges in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest. You can access these stories by clicking here.
Want to learn more about Frankenmuth's history? Check out Frankenmuth (Images of America) by the Frankenmuth Historical Association.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved