The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 18, 2009

Mill Creek crossing reborn

Pizza parlor owner heard opportunity knocking on old timbers when county sold Eagleville covered bridge

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer - cfeather@starbeacon.com

There is no person alive who knows the Eagleville Covered Bridge like Gary Hewitt.

The North Kingsville businessman took the 1862 bridge apart one timber, one wooden peg at a time in the summer of 1973. He then rebuilt the southern end of it inside the Covered Bridge Pizza Parlor, which opened on Route 193 in 1975. The northern half of the bridge is in Hewitt’s Andover pizza parlor.

Formerly located on Forman Road and spanning the Mill Creek, this Town lattice bridge dates back to 1862, according to an Ashtabula County Historical Society publication, which stated that the bridge’s date was on the bridge. The reference did not state where on the bridge, however.

Hewitt says he never found evidence of a date when dismantling the bridge. Further, according to a notice in the Ashtabula Sentinel, Dec. 11, 1867, county commissioners were to receive bids for building a lattice bridge over “Mills” Creek at Eagleville on Dec. 27 of that year. “Abutments to be let by the cord in wall, bridge by the foot,” stated the bridge notice.

Regardless of when it was built, in 1870 this bridge was lengthened and moved 100 feet north of its original location after melting spring floes changed the course of the creek.

The bridge was moved again during the legendary flood of 1913, this time by the swift waters that washed the bridge down stream. With only horses and block and tackle to move it, the bridge was pulled back to its stone abutments, where it would serve for nearly another 60 years.

The bridge received extensive attention from the county in 1963, when steel I-beams were placed underneath for additional support. The county also replaced the roof during that decade.

However, by 1972 the bridge was determined to be in unsafe condition and in need of replacement. County Engineer David L. Weir closed the bridge and suggested moving it to the Ashtabula County Fairgrounds.

But the bridge ended up being offered to the highest bidder, and Hewitt bought it for $5. He had just opened his Covered Bridge Pizza Parlor in a North Kingsville house and was juggling that venture with a bar he owned in Kent. Hewitt, spending much of his time in the college community, noticed among his bar patrons a current of discontentment with the modern world.

“We’d just gone through the 1970 riots at Kent, and the young people were trying to reach back; they thought the good-old days were better days,” Hewitt said.

As he searched for a symbol of those simpler times, Hewitt hit upon the covered-bridge concept for his new pizza parlor.

“I thought this kind of represents the good old days, and what a great theme to build around,” he said.

His original plan was to get the business up and running, then custom-build a covered bridge to house the restaurant. When the opportunity came to purchase a vintage bridge, Hewitt changed course.

“It really was a surprise,” he said. “The county made the decision they were going to get rid of it. (Commissioner) Dr. Lusk said, ‘Gary, what are you going to do, put it across the (Hadlock Road) ford?’”

Hewitt slid in just under the wire. He jotted down “$5” on a piece of paper, slipped it into an envelope and presented it to the commissioners as the bid period was about to end.

“It so happened it was the only bid. Later that afternoon, they did have another bid from Cleveland, but it was too late. I was the proud owner of an 1862 bridge,” Hewitt says. He likes to joke that “If I’d known I was going to be the only bidder, I could have got it for a buck.”

It was a great bargain at $5, although Hewitt had just bought himself 55 tons of work.

He enlisted the help of Glenn Bliss, and they went to work dismantling the bridge from the top down.

“We started taking it apart just (opposite) of the way it was built. We took off the shingles; off then the roof,” says Hewitt.

The roof boards were like new, and although they were not used on the pizza parlor, they came in handy for other projects. When it came time to remove the trusses, Hewitt numbered each timber, starting from the south end — L-1/ R-1, L-2/ R-2, and so on — so he could reassemble them in the correct order. He also took photographs of the entire truss for future reference.

Hewitt juggled his work on the bridge with his other two businesses. He had just 90 days to remove the bridge so the county could replace it with a new one.

“It took us 26 working days to take it down,” Hewitt says.

They did it all with hammers, crowbars and a long, iron pin they used to drive out the wooden tree nails — 14 per row of latticework — that held the timbers together. There were 84 lattice rows per side.

“After we got the roof off, when it rained it got tougher to get those pins out because they would swell up. It was a real chore, but it dried out, and we got them out,” he recalls.

The job involved a lot of interruptions as passers-by stopped to mourn the loss of the landmark, share their memories or simply ask for information. Hewitt said the bridge was a stop on an antique-auto club’s scavenger hunt. The motorists had to find out what the bridge’s clearance was. That information was previously displayed on a portal sign but was gone by the time the event was held.

“We kept getting visitors, and finally I’d just holler at them ‘10 FEET 3 INCHES’ and they’d say ‘O.K.,’” recalls Hewitt.

Some of the visitors just wanted to reminisce.

“You heard a lot of the older people tell about going through with their horse and buggy, stopping in there with their girl or existing wife under the old covered bridge,” Hewitt says. “We had people coming back to look for their initials that they’d carved in there during those days.”

Hewitt and Bliss discovered that bridge builders relied upon more than engineering to build a strong bridge. They also tapped into the innate characteristics of different kinds of wood to meet the demands of the design.

“On the ends of the bridge, they used hardwoods: beech, maple oak. As it got toward the center, they turned to hemlock,” he said.

Whatever wood Bliss and Hewitt pulled from the bridge went home with them on a trailer at the end of the day.

“There were some kids in the neighborhood, and they had fun at night throwing in the creek what we’d taken off,” he says. “We found out real quick we had to take it home with us that night.”

The bridge members were stacked and stored on his parents’ property in North Kingsville while Hewitt drew up his plans for the restaurant and went through the long process of Environmental Protection Agency permitting. In late 1975, he opened the new pizza parlor that used half of the Eagleville bridge for the dining room interior. The other half was used in the Andover parlor, which opened in 1978.

The trusses were rebuilt in the exact order they were on the bridge; if you look closely, Hewitt’s chalk numbers are still visible on some diagonals. The exterior of the bridge’s siding was reversed to create weathered walls for the unique eatery.

The bridge, divided as it is, has been assigned a number: 35-04-17.

In 1984 Hewitt built a third Covered Bridge Pizza Parlor, in High Point, N.C., using new lumber. He owned it for 22 years; it is now a garden center.

The local pizza parlors have attracted visitors from around the world who snap pictures of being served pizza in an authentic covered bridge or pose with the horse and buggy that Hewitt parks in front of “The Bridge,” as the restaurant is affectionately known by locals.

Hewitt says the original covered-bridge interior is both a great customer drawing card and timeless decor. Normally, a restaurant must remodel every five to 10 years, but Hewitt needs only to update the booths and tables. The balance of the interior is timeless.

“The older it is, the better it is,” he says.

Looking back on that summer when he and Bliss dismantled the bridge, Hewitt recalls it as one of the best in his life. Indeed, this is one covered bridge that has brought a unique blessing to Hewitt and his family.

“It really has been wonderful for us,” Hewitt says.



online: www.coveredbridgepizza.com