The Past as Present: New Book on Highway 20 Brings Us Home Again

The Past as Present: New Book on Highway 20 Brings Us Home Again

The Editors:

Oh how we wanted to call this article “The Dean in Jeans”, because this time when we sat down with Dean Emeritus Michael Till,* it was at his kitchen table.  No stranger to having his work published, Dr. Till has added another contribution to his list with the publication of “Along New York’s Route 20,” a record of his love affair with America’s original and now historic Highway 20. There is a simple but essential element in the pursuit of living history, and that is the necessity of keeping things of value present in our lives. For that, and for the people who do that for us, our appreciation should never go without saying.      The Editors

Historic Cherry Valley Turnpike, Cherry Valley, New York. The responsibility of being New York’s main east-west artery was fulfi lled in the modern road construction evident in this section of the turnpike just west of Cherry Valley. The road was straight and the surface had been paved allowing faster travel. Fortunately, the idyllic countryside views were not compromised.

NWD: Let’s start with the basics: Tell us about the book that is going to be published.

Dr. Till: In 1926, states were granted federal funding for the development and maintenance of seven percent of their highway systems, provided that the roads were “interstate in character”. These highways were designated “Federal”, and a numbering system was adopted which still is in use today. Major east-west roads were assigned a number ending in “0”. My book is about original US Highway 20, or Route 20 as it is called in the east. Highway 20 is the northernmost of the original crosscountry highways, and at 3,365 miles it is the longest. Also, its original configuration is the most intact of all the 1926 federal highways.

What makes the road interesting to me is that it was the Main Street in the small town in Iowa where I grew up. If you were going  anyplace east or west from Independence, Iowa, you went on Highway 20. From childhood to college, that was the road I traveled. Of course, we perpetuated the joke told in every small town, “What’s the best thing that ever came out of Independence? Answer: Highway 20!”

Original Highway 20 runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. It starts in Boston, crosses 12 states, and ends in Newport, Oregon. Its 3,365 mile course crosses some of the most beautiful and interesting countryside in America. This book focuses on New York, but I plan to write about other states in the future.

NWD: How did it turn into the idea of writing a book?

Dr. Till: I began collecting antique postcards several years ago, starting with views around Independence, and found all sorts of interesting things: a 150-year old-mill, a bridge on the National Register of Historic Places, a long-gone racetrack where world trotting records were set. Each discovery prompted me to look further, and I now have covered the entire length of Highway 20. My collection exceeds 2,000 cards, and it just seemed reasonable to share the pictures with anyone who might be interested. Fortunately, Arcadia Publishing, the country’s largest publisher of local history books, agreed and offered me a contract.

NWD: How did it evolve from the first idea to the published piece?

Dr. Till: My objective was to recreate a pictorial and narrative journey that one might have taken during the period 1926 to  approximately the Second World War. That was a time when the roads were all two-lane, there were no chain motels or fastfood restaurants, and the terms “big-box stores” and “urban sprawl” were not even imagined. Almost all highways went from Main Street to Main Street in the towns along the route. It was an era that is completely gone. Driving on the Interstate today, all one sees is the name of a town at the exit ramp or possibly a water tower as you pass by. Drivers miss the charm and beauty of rural America. This book is dedicated to “All those who remember the crowding and heat in the backseat of the family sedan before the days of air-conditioning, DVDs, and iPods.” I’m one of those people, and that is the experience I want to convey.

NWD: Why is this book about New York?

Dr. Till: There are several reasons. The first was simply practical; I have more postcards from New York than from any other state. Secondly, prior to the Interstate Highway era, Route 20 was New York’s primary east-west highway. Thirdly, it is a beautiful road. Route 20 extends from the Shaker communities in the Lebanon Valley in eastern New York through the Capital, Albany, and then  follows two of not only New York’s, but the country’s, most famous early highways, the Great Western Turnpike and the Cherry Valley Turnpike, which date to 1799 and 1803, respectively. The road connects all of New York’s Finger Lakes before proceeding to the Buffalo area and then follows the south shore of Lake Erie to the Pennsylvania border. A large portion of Route 20 has been  designated a New York Scenic Byway.

NWD: Tell us some of the fun things you have discovered.

Dr. Till: They keep turning up all the time. Some of these are included in the New York book, and others have happened elsewhere along the highway. For example: The Black Sox baseball scandal was conceived in the Hotel Buckminster in Boston; Samuel Morse developed the telegraph in Cherry Valley, New York; Henry Schoolcraft, the discoverer of the true source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, lived in Guilderland, New York. I have a card showing a bridge in Esperance, New York designed by Aaron Burr’s cousin; the first traffic signal in the country was installed on Route 20 in Cleveland; four U.S. presidents have resided on Route 20. Two famous political terms originated on Route 20. The first resulted from a popular circus owner in Girard, Pennsylvania, who allowed candidates he favored to ride with him in parades – thus the term “jumping on the bandwagon”. The Blackstone Hotel in Chicago was the site where a Republican Nominating Convention became deadlocked. A group of powerful politicians met in private and forced the nomination of Warren G. Harding. A reporter described the scene as a “smoke filled room”, coining the cliché for back room political maneuvering. There are many more I could mention if space permitted.


Waterloo Pharmacy, Main Street, Waterloo, New York. One can imagine Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland sipping lemon  phosphates at this drug store’s soda fountain. The State Theater next door was showing a double feature,“Her First Beau”and "Shining Victory”. Both were released in 1941. Much earlier, in 1865, Waterloo druggist Henry Welles proposed decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Other communities joined in on the established date of May 30. In May 1966, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate unanimously passed Concurrent Resolution 587, which stated, “Resolved, that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby offi cially recognize Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day.”

The Scythe Tree Farm, two miles west of Waterloo, New York. James Johnson joined the Union Army in October of 1861. He hung his scythe in the crotch of a tree and asked that it be left there until he returned. Tragically, he was killed in May, 1864. The scythe was never removed, and for many years his valor was commemorated by placing a flag on his scythe blade. At the onset of World War I, two brothers, Raymond and Lynn Schaffer, who were then living on the farm, joined the Army and Navy, respectively. They, too, placed a scythe in the tree next to that of Sergeant Johnson. Flags were placed on the three scythe blades until the end of the war. Fortunately, both Schaffer boys returned safely. The handles of the scythes were removed, but all three blades remained in the tree.

NWD: The postcards are beautiful.

Dr. Till: They are, both the photographic ones and the artistic illustrations. Best of all, many of the scenes and buildings shown on the cards still exist, history you can see and touch. So many of the other original highways have been lost, with new four-lane roads built right over the top. Wider roads meant many of the old buildings were bulldozed away together with the memories they evoked. Fortunately, original Highway 20 was an exception. It is more than 90% intact all the way across the country. The Interstate Highways and modern Route 20 parallel the original road rather than being superimposed on top. With an inquisitive spirit and few old maps, it is quite easy to trace the original route.

NWD: Have you met interesting people along the way?

Dr. Till: My wife, Chris, and I have spent a lot of time talking to people in the towns where we are researching certain sites. We have especially enjoyed meeting the librarians and historical society folks, who invariably have greeted our requests with enthusiasm. An interesting sidelight, especially in the smaller communities, is if the person doesn’t know the answer to a question, the response might be, “Let me call my grandpa; he’ll remember that,” or some other generous gesture that yields pure gold in firsthand historic information. Thus many elderly citizens along Route 20 have contributed at least indirectly to this book.

NWD: Where are you in the publishing process?

Dr. Till: “Along New York’s Route 20” will be released on April 11. We will be going to New York to do some book events following the publication. New York has a very well-organized Highway 20 Association that has been a tremendous help. I am gathering data now for another book on Route 20 in Massachusetts which I hope to complete over the next several months.

NWD: With a project as close to your heart as this one continues to be, what has it given you in return?

Dr. Till: There is nothing in this project that hasn’t been fun, and I want to pass that along. There is so much in this country that people should see, but for me, the particular joy is just small town life. We love driving down the Main Streets of little towns, and stopping for lunch or dinner in the local restaurants. It’s just fun. There are places out there that should be of interest to  everybody, so - just do it. Once you get your feet wet, I’d wager you will want to keep at it. To which I would just say, Happy travels!