March 10, 2010

Covered bridge will honor Bridgton artisan

— Bob Dunning left a mark on the Lakes Region town of Bridgton. Dunning was an artisan who restored historic barns and homes. He was a fine woodworker and carver and also an ardent environmentalist who helped defeat a proposed nuclear waste repository in western Maine back in the 1980s.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

When Dunning died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack in November 2007, at age 57, hundreds came to pay tribute. Folks had to be turned away from the Bridgton Congregational Church. People parked a mile away and walked to get in. The ceremony had to be videotaped so everyone could see it.

''He was so well-known in town,'' said Jack Heffernan, a longtime friend living on Bridgton's Highland Lake. ''He was a trusted elder.''

Now, those in the community are committed to installing a lasting memorial to the man -- one that will reflect a love of nature and woodworking, as well as the giving spirit Dunning possessed.

The Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge will eventually provide access to Pondicherry Park, a 66-acre gem of undeveloped woods and streams smack dab in the heart of Bridgton.

The park, encompassing an area bordered by Hannaford on Route 302 on the east and Bridgton Hospital to the west, extends northward to the Magic Lantern Theater. Environmental groups, land trusts, town officials and property owners have pieced it together for many years.

The section is historic and had many mills situated along Stevens Brook years ago. This brook, as well as Willet Brook that runs behind the Hannaford store, protected the area from modern development.

But these waterways are now hindering access to the network of hiking trails and woods. Thus, two bridges have been proposed to link the parcel for pedestrians.

A small bridge will be installed near the elementary school, and a larger, covered bridge bearing Dunning's name will be installed behind the Magic Lantern.

After Dunning's death, Jack and Deborah Heffernan held a meeting at their home, where local artisans and environmentalists hatched the idea for the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge.

''We contemplated what the world was going to be like without Bob Dunning,'' recalls Deborah Heffernan. ''The Pondicherry Park was being created, a main bridge was needed between the downtown and beautiful Stevens Brook, and so it occurred to us that the bridge should be named for Bob Dunning.

''He bridged the most important parts of life here in western Maine: traditional ways, such as arts and crafts, and taking care of your environment.

''Environment and artistic beauty were the two sides of Bob.''

Dunning was active in the local preservation community and knew historic timber-framed structures intimately. So it was natural when longtime friend and timber framer Andy Buck, along with a handful of other local artisans -- Henry Banks, Greg Marston and Eve Abreau -- teamed up to design the covered bridge.

Buck, who designed and built what would become the well-known Stone Mountain Arts Center in nearby Brownfield, said the bridge will span 60 feet and will arch in a graceful bow across Stevens Brook. Its walls will also bow outward in the center.

''I've never done a bridge before,'' said Buck, who knew Dunning for 20 years, ''but I'm looking forward to building this bridge.''

To reflect Dunning's role as an environmental educator, the bridge will purposely incorporate different species of native trees. With a frame built mostly from pine, the horizontal tie beams that hold the tops off the walls from spreading apart will be sawed on just two sides, Buck said. The remaining bark will assist in identification purposes for lessons with local schoolkids.

Much like the persona of the man to whom the bridge will be dedicated, the Pondicherry Park and Dunning Memorial Bridge efforts are large. Loon Echo Land Trust owns part of, or is in the process of acquiring conservation easements on the rest of the park's acreage.

Including the bridge, the whole endeavor will take upwards of $700,000, of which more than $500,000 has been raised. The bridge will cost $211,000.

Many individuals, as well as government and business groups have pledged support. But despite being fully engineered and permitted, the bridge has yet to receive its necessary funding; Buck has yet to begin his work.

Lakes Environmental Association President Peter Lowell was a colleague of Dunning and helped defeat the proposed nuclear waste project in the 1980s. The pair collaborated on Bridgton planning issues as well.

''The funding for the Bob Dunning Bridge is the final push of the project,'' said Lowell ''We can't let this go; people are getting more and more excited about it.''

Lowell said the nature of the floodplain at the bridge site requires working in the fall when water levels are low. It's the hope a couple of months will bring in the needed fundraising so the initial goal of installing footings and steel beams to support the bridge can commence if the $30,000-$40,000 is raised.

''If we can get the steel in the ground, I think we can uncork all this all this energy people have,'' said Lowell. ''The bridge will then be kind of a community barn raising.''

The Heffernans note that people have pledged materials and time, including logs hauled out by oxen from their own woodlots to be sawed into bridge beams.

''It was never intended to be this way, but we think it will inevitably become a tourist attraction,'' said Deborah Heffernan, ''because beautiful things do.''

To find out more about the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge and make a donation, visit, or call 647-4352 (Loon Echo Land Trust), or 647-8580 (Lakes Environmental Association).

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at:

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