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Millbury basks in glow of ʽHistoric U.S. Route 20’ status

By Rod Lee

Bryan Farr likes to say that there are “a lot of wow moments” along “Historic U.S. Route 20.” He should know. Mr. Farr is founder, president and CEO of the Association formed to promote the road—America’s longest at 3,365 miles.

Another such wow moment came when Mr. Farr appeared as guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Millbury Historical Society on June 11th at the Asa Waters Mansion. In what Society Vice President Mary Lou Mulhane described as a “fascinating talk and slide-show presentation” including “people we hadn’t seen before,” he opened the eyes of the approximately seventy-five persons in attendance to Route 20’s illustrious past.

Mr. Farr’s remarks were of particular interest to the Society, since Route 20 passes through the town of Millbury on its path from the Bay State to Oregon.

“He was very passionate,” Millbury Historical Society President Frank Gagliardi said. “I thought Route 20 was only across our state!”

On the contrary. It crosses a total of twelve states and has been traveled by many. Mr. Farr, realizing a longtime dream, finally made the “road trip” himself in 2010. Some of the 1800 pictures he took over the course of those fourteen days are featured in a “Historic U.S. Route 20” book he published. The book sold out in May. More are being printed. He also has a website, historicus20.org.

Mr. Farr is a University of North Carolina-Asheville grad and a meteorologist by trade who now lives in Chester in Western Massachusetts. He grew up knowing Route 20 as the road that went north from his grandparents’ cottage on Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region to Darien Lake where his family made a yearly summer pilgrimage. One day in 1997 he took a camera he had borrowed and traversed the northern part of Cayuga Lake. After moving to the Boston area in 2004 and discovering that Route 20 existed here in New England, he decided he had to travel the highway in its entirety.

He is now arguably the most versed authority around on Route 20. During a telephone conversation on June 14th he said he averages “one talk a month” in educating the public about the road in a bid partly inspired by a desire to “create a viable alternative to Route 66” (of television-show fame) as “a magical” experience.” The number of the road (the “0” in 20 is an indication that the road is a coast-to-coast route) is not what matters, he said. “It could be Route 41.” What’s important is “things you see on Route 66 you can see on Route 20.”

Route 20 roughly parallels I-90. It was laid out in 1926. It originally ended at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone and was extended in 1940. Its terminus in Massachusetts is in Boston at Kenmore Square, where it meets state Route 2. Its western terminus is in Newport, Oregon at the intersection with U.S. 101, within a mile of the Pacific Ocean.

In Massachusetts, Route 20 is known as “Jacob’s Ladder” as it crosses the Berkshires between Lee and Hampden; in Shrewsbury as “Hartford Turnpike;” and in Northborough and Worcester as “Southwest Cutoff.” It passes by Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury—the oldest continuously operated inn in the country. In 1926, after engineers determined that heavy truck traffic on Boston Post Road was damaging the foundations of the Inn, Henry Ford, who owned the property at the time, ordered construction of a Route 20 bypass. This was completed in December of 1928 and sold to the Commonwealth for $1. Mr. Ford never cashed the check. The project cost him $288,000. The original Route 20 is now Wayside Inn Road.

Mary Lou Mulhane said that coincidentally, after hearing Mr. Farr talk about how Route 20 was initially “more in the Route 9 area, it was moved and lowered,” and “the road today” as it passes through “different areas and different states, here I am at a party a few days later and mention of Route 20 in Goshen, Indiana came up and a woman said ʽI was in Goshen! I was out there for a graduation at Notre Dame.’”

Securing Mr. Farr as guest speaker for the Society’s annual meeting was rewarding because “it is always a challenge to find good entertainment. Someone mentioned (Mr. Farr’s) name” and he was available.

It would not be surprising to see “Historic U.S. Route 20” signs, which Ms. Mulhane describes as “8-inch by 7-inch shields” and which are available for purchase, adorning the front of businesses and homes in Millbury in the future.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.