The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 16, 2009

Olin Bridge county’s only extant covered bridge with family name

Olin family members take special pride in bridge, honor ancestor with covered bridge museum

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

When Barrie Bottorf speaks of the Dewey Road covered bridge, it is always possessively, even though it is a county bridge.

“It’s our bridge,” says Bottorf, who lives along the river downstream from the Plymouth Township bridge.

“It’s an extension of our private property,” adds his niece Julie Grandbouche, who owns property on the east side.

“My entire life, that bridge was there and part of us,” says Bottorf.

The bridge, built from 1873 to 1875, figured into the childhood of many a Plymouth and Kingsville township resident, as under it was one of the best swimming pools to be found along the Ashtabula River.

“In the old days, when I was kid, everybody swam under the bridge,” Bottorf says. “It was basically the community swimming hole. Upriver was another hole, where the boys swam — skinny dipping.”

The swimming hole was courtesy of a dam that has since disappeared. The deep hole underneath the bridge has filled in, as well.

“It was much better swimming, much deeper years ago,” Bottorf says.

“I have jumped off the roof of the bridge, and we used to dive off the bridge through these holes in the bridge where the siding fell off,” he recalls.

Because of the swimming hole, the bridge has been dubbed the “Patron Bridge of Little Boys.” It was also known as the “Second Covered Bridge.”

Family pride

The bridge’s best-known name is simply Olin Bridge, referring to the family that has owned property in this area for more than 150 years. Bottorf’s familial connections to this land go back to at least 1850, when his grandfather Almon Olin was born in a log cabin on the west bank of the river. His offspring have found it difficult to stray far from this scenic section of the Ashtabula River.

“Most of the property surrounding the bridge has been in the Olin family at one time or another,” says Bottorf, who owns houses on both sides of the road.

Bottorf’s mother, Naomi (Olin) Bottorf, became known as the “Covered Bridge Lady” because of her birthright — she was born in a house next to the bridge — and her passion for that bridge and all covered bridges.

In her lifetime, Naomi Bottorf collected anything and everything related to covered bridges: postcards, sugar packets, soap, jewelry, place mats, paperweights, ash trays, money clips, sun catchers, bells, magnets, puzzles, plates, pictures, newspaper clippings and hundreds of other items. She belonged to at least 15 covered bridge societies and kept every newsletter they sent her. Her husband, Fred, who died in 1981, was likewise fascinated by the bridges and would carve their images into pieces of shale he found along the river.

When Naomi died in 1995 at the age of 95, the family realized that the vastness of her collection was good material for a museum. Julie and her husband had inherited another aunt’s house at the top of the hill east of the bridge, and they, along with Barrie’s sister and brother-in-law, Holly and Brad Watson, decided to remodel the house and set up a museum there.

Olin’s Museum of Covered Bridges, located at 1918 Dewey Road, opened in May 2003. At the time it opened, the museum was the only one in the nation devoted to covered bridges, but just a few weeks later, the Bennington, Vt., covered bridge museum opened its doors. Since then, a third covered bridge museum has opened, as well.

The Olin’s Museum of Covered Bridges is a natural extension of the bridge, which is, in a sense, the museum’s ultimate artifact.

Bottorf suspects yet another familial connection to this bridge. His grandfather was a stone mason, and Bottorf can’t help but wonder if he didn’t have a hand in constructing the original abutments of the bridge.

“He would have been 23 at the time, and I can’t help but believe he would have been involved in building the foundation abutment,” Bottorf says.

The bridge itself is attributed to a carpenter named “Potter,” who allegedly built several of the reliable Town lattice bridges in the county. Historical record is frustratingly silent on who had the task of building our cherished bridges. In the minutes of the Ashtabula County commissioners for 1867 and 1868, there are several references to “letting of bridge” contracts, but the recipient of those contracts was not noted, excepted in the case of the Clyde Bridge abutments (County Line Road), which were to be built by John Donahue.

Regardless of who built these structures, their workmanship generally stood the test of time, floods and even the coming of the automobile with a little assistance. By 1958, the Olin Bridge was sagging and required the addition of a steel center support. Four years later, the same summer the Blaine (Green Hill) Road covered bridge was torched, someone tried to burn the Olin Bridge, as well.

“Someone set a fire in the bridge,” Bottorf recalls. “One of the neighbors came along and was able to put out the fire. If it had been another 15 minutes, the bridge would have been gone.”

By 1981, when Fred Bottorf died, the bridge’s exterior really was showing its age.

“A lot of the boards were missing, and the roof was leaking,” Bottorf says. “When my father died, my aunt said why don’t you take any (memorial) donations of money and fix up the bridge. We thought that was a real good idea, and we did it.”

The crew of nearly two dozen volunteers, many of them neighbors, whipped the bridge into shape in a matter of two weekends. They gave it a new roof, replaced siding boards, repaired gables, painted the ends and repaired/ painted guardrails. When the work was done, county engineer John Smolen presented them with a new sign for the bridge, one designating it as the Olin Bridge.

“It officially became the first covered bridge in Ashtabula County to be named after a family,” Bottorf said.

Four years later, the center steel support was washed out, and a concrete-wall support was built. The concrete structures do a better job of diverting the water and keeping driftwood from accumulating. Concurrently, adding a center support quadruples the lattice’s load-carrying ability.

Six years after that, John Smolen worked his renovation magic on the bridge. The bridge was closed to traffic, and lower and intermediate chords were replaced. It received new floor beams, planks and siding, as well.

When the bridge was rededicated at the Covered Bridge Festival in 1993, it bore little resemblance to the tired but quaint structure Bottorf traveled through and swam under as a lad.

“I liked it better the old way,” Bottorf says, with a hint of nostalgia.

For Bottorf and Grandbouche, one of the big issues with the renovation was that it made the bridge’s interior much darker, thanks to louvers that were placed in the windows. In the fall of last year, a few of those slats were removed, adding an extra dash of light to the dim interior.

“It was scary in there, spooky,” Grandbouche recalls.

As much as they don’t like to talk about it, Bottorf and Grandbouche admit the museum itself is spooky at times, thanks to what would seem to be a resident spirit or two.

“Weird things happen in this house,” he admits. “There is a constant creaking above (the first floor) on one side.”

Bottorf recalls an incident of coming into the house with his arms full of chairs and having to walk up the staircase. His eyes witnessed something on the other side of the door turn the knob and open the door for him.

Grandbouche says they also have discovered that answering machines simply refuse to work in the museum. They’ve purchased two new ones and, despite testing them at home, were unable to get the devices to record a message at the museum. Grandbouche says her mother is “scared to death of this place” but the spirits seem to obey Grandbouche’s commands to stop their activity.

Visitors are likely to be too absorbed in the educational displays, photographs and memorabilia to notice the presence of any spirits, however. Bottorf says the museum is evolving from originally being a place to display his mother’s collection to one that helps visitors understand the craft of covered bridge construction and the bridges’ role in the development of America.

The museum is open 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, June 1 through Oct. 31. It is also open by appointment. Call 998-0025 for information. A $2 per person donation is suggested.