Books, History, Travel

Travel the ‘forgotten highways’ of New England

Author examines historic turnpikes in new guide book

By Jennifer Huberdeau

During winter 1803, the tollkeeper on the road between the Berkshires and Hudson, N.Y., recorded over 700 sleds and sleighs, many headed to the market, over the course of a single Saturday.

The tolls paid by the users — 25 cents for a carriage drawn by four horses; 6 cents for a horse and rider; 12 cents for a score of sheep, and so on — would pay for the early turnpike’s upkeep. Similar tolls were charged on similar highways and turnpikes around New England, as towns struggled to keep the well-used and well-worn roads in acceptable traveling conditions.

“The toll collectors were the most important part of maintaining the roads, which were so horrendously bad,” said Robert A. Geake, a historian and author from Rhode Island.
Before toll collections, towns adopted laws that required every able-bodied man to work on the roads a few days of the year. Those who could afford to hired laborers to perform the task, which usually was done halfheartedly, he said.

It was along these well-known roads that hotels, diners, restaurants and general stores would open and flourish. But, as new highways and byways were built and then replaced by the interstate highway system, travel along these historic roads came to a standstill and businesses shuttered.

These early turnpikes faded into memory, becoming better known as backroads used for scenic drives — roads that Geake highlights in his latest book, “The Road Less Traveled: Forgotten Historic Highways of New England.”

“It’s been a really interesting journey,” Geake said of writing the book, which is partially a history guide and part travel guide. “It’s taken four years to take all the trips. I started by heading out and taking pictures, then I researched the history of each. I actually did more than are in the book, but we had to limit the number of chapters.”

Among the 10 historic highways and turnpikes are three routes within UpCountry’s coverage area: “U.S. Route 7: Sheffield, Mass. to Kent, Conn.”; “Scenic By-Way: Route 30/100: Townshend to Weston, Vt.” and “Over the River and Through the Woods: Route 121 Bellows Falls to North Windham, Vt.”

“I found a lot of great history and a lot of great people along the way,” he said. “Grafton and Weston [Vt.] were two of my favorite places. They’re beautiful, have great histories and the people [in these communities] are so accommodating.”

He suggests stopping in and walking around Grafton (covered in the chapter on Route 121) and Weston (part of the chapter on Routes 30 and 100).

In his travels along Routes 30 and 100 in Vermont, Geake writes about the Scott Covered Bridge in Townshend, the second-longest covered bridge in the state; Grandma Miller’s Pies and Pastries in South Londonderry; the Weston Playhouse; the Craftsman’s Museum; and the Vermont Country Store, a fixture in downtown Weston since 1949.

“Part of the reason it’s important to pull off the highway and travel these roads is that you can go slower and look around. You can see the history, even if you don’t stop and get out of the car,” he said. “These old roads are a connection to how a community grew.”

Along Route 121 in Vermont, Geake highlights the Miss Bellows Falls Diner, the Hall Covered Bridge, the Saxtons River Village Market and the Butterfield House, Eaglebrook and the Vermont Museum of Minerals, all in Grafton.

“One of my favorite finds was when we crossed a river and came across the ruins of an old woolen mill. It was very picturesque,” he said.

But, perhaps the greatest discovery he has had over the years is that of the Eric Sloane Museum in Kent, Conn., while traveling along Route 7.

“I first discovered it when I drove past it when I was traveling to New York,” said Geake, a fan of Sloane — author, historian and illustrator — since he was a young man.

Other highlights along Route 7 include the Dan Raymond House, the Old Stone Store, Owen Dewey Hall in Sheffield, Mass., along with the Housatonic Meadows State Forest campground in Sharon, Conn.

Read It

“The Road Less Traveled: Forgotten Historic Highways of New England”

By Robert A. Geake

Publisher: Arcadia Publishing

160 pages

Cover image provided by Arcadia Publishing


Jennifer Huberdeau is editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column “Mysteries from the Morgue” for The Berkshire Eagle.

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