Sacketts Brook Stone Arch Bridge
National Register Nomination Information:
The Sacketts Brook Stone Arch Bridge carries Mill or "High-Low-Biddy" Road (Town Highway #43) across Sacketts Brook at the bottom of a steep-sided, wooded ravine, 0.25 mile east of Putney village. A mason and intuitive engineer from nearby Townshend, Vermont named James Otis Follett constructed the bridge in 1906 at a cost of $1,560. One of eleven extant stone bridges built by Follett, the Sacketts Brook bridge remains unaltered and structurally sound, and continues to carry local traffic.
The Sacketts Brook Stone Arch Bridge consists of a single span supported by a stone segmental arch. At its base, the arch extends about 29 feet; it rises about 12.5 feet above the surface of the brook. The overall width of the arch between faces is 15.5 feet, giving the roadway only one travel lane for modern vehicles. At its south end, the bridge is attached to a massive stone abutment with flared wing walls, which is about three feet wider and appears to have been built for an earlier bridge on the site. The north end of the bridge is abutted by earlier wing walls, which flare from the faces of the bridge.
The arch itself is built of large rectangular blocks of granite which are roughly pitched and mortared-into mostly regular courses; the keystone on each face projects slightly beyond its vertical plane. The spandrels of the arch are infilled with partly coursed, irregularly shaped granite blocks, the joints of which display mortar of uncertain origin. At least three courses of similar masonry extend the full length of the bridge above the top of the arch, carrying in turn the gravel road surface. Makeshift log guardrails have been added to the sides of the roadway. The older abutments and wing walls are built of partly coursed rubble stone laid dry.
The Sacketts Brook Stone Arch Bridge holds primary significance for being the work of an intuitive engineer, a farmer and mason from nearby Townshend, Vermont named James Otis Follett. The masonry arch applied by Follett in 1906 to carry a town highway across Sacketts Brook represents a highly unusual structure among rural secondary road bridges in Vermont, especially for having been built after the turn of the twentieth century when iron and steel had almost completely displaced wood and stone in bridge construction. The Sacketts Brook bridge together with nine other extant stone bridges and culverts built by Follett in Putney and Townshend constitute probably the largest group of such related structures in the state. (An eleventh bridge built by Follett--and the only one with two arch spans--survives in Walpole, New Hampshire.)
Born in East Jamaica, Vermont in 1843, James Otis Follett lived and worked most of his life on a farm in Townshend. Among other public activities, he served that town for several years as road commissioner, being responsible for the maintenance and improvement of its public highways. During the 1890's, Follett seems to have shifted his vocational emphasis from farming to masonry. The first known entry of payment to Follett for the construction of a "stonebridge" appears in the Townshend town records in 1894. Thereafter, Follett built one or two bridges almost every year until his death in 1911 creating substantial yet inexpensive structures to meet the needs of at least three small rural towns. Additionally, he constructed foundations for buildings and abutments for wood covered bridges, including, in 1900, a center pier for the famous Holland Bridge (demolished in 1952) across the West River in Townshend.
The total number of bridges built by James Otis Follett is not known definitely. A grandson, Robert Follett of Ascutney, Vermont, estimates that he may have built about forty bridges. Entries in the Putney and Townshend records list payments to Follett for a total of about twenty bridges and culverts built on public highways in those two towns. The Putney records list payments for seven structures between 1902 and 1908; three arch bridges, including the Sacketts Brook bridge, and one flat topped culvert are known to survive.
Although Follett lacked formal training in engineering, apparently he did consult a popular engineering text of the period, A Treatise on Masonry Construction by Ira Osborn Baker. A copy of the ninth edition, published in 1899 and apparently used by Follett, remains in the possession of the Follett family. The book describes methods of constructing stone arch bridges; however it is not known to what extent Follett actually depended on the book in his work, for he built at least four bridges in Townshend prior to the publication of his copy of the Baker text.
Whatever the source of his skill, Follett succeeded in building durable and handsomely crafted bridges. Some of them, including the Sacketts Brook bridge, now carry truck loads which Follett could not have imagined, yet it has not been necessary to alter or reinforce them significantly. None of his bridges is known to have failed structurally; floods have destroyed some of them by undermining their foundations. Complementing their structural integrity, the Follett bridges possess distinctive aesthetic qualities in their individual variations of the arch form and stone material.
Currently the greatest general threat to the surviving Follett bridges is inadequate maintenance, both of the active and disused ones. In the case of a bridge across Fair Brook in Townshend, actual demolition is now being considered rather than repair of its somewhat deteriorated structure. The indifferent treatment of the Follett bridges derives partly from their inconspicuous locations on back roads, which tends to keep them from becoming more widely known and appreciated by the public. The Sacketts Brook bridge, in particular, received little attention owing to its nearly hidden location at the bottom of a steep-sided ravine on a lightly traveled road across a brook polluted by paper mill wastes.
Taken together, the surviving bridges constructed by James Otis Follett constitute a highly representative and intact record of the work of an extraordinary native builder. At the same time, the bridges belong among the last of their kind in Vermont. In response to the outstanding nature of these historic resources, the Historic American Engineering Record plans to conduct field surveys and systematic recordings of the remaining bridges. The Follett bridge deserve immediate public recognition and careful preservation to ensure the continued survival of this unique legacy from late nineteenth century rural Vermont.
Derry, Anne. James Otis Follette (sic), Bridgebuilder. Unpublished manuscript prepared for Graduate Program in Restoration and Preservation of Historic Architecture, Columbia University, New York, New York, 1975.
DeWolfe, Edith, Lura H. Frost, Edith I. Gassett, et al., eds. The History of Putney Vermont 1753-1953. Putney, Vermont: The Fortnightly Club, 1953.
Notes from interview of Robert Follett, Ascutney, Vermont by Michele Frome on 9 July 1976.
DATE ENTERED: December 12, 1976
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