A Road Less Traveled

Cape Cod's two-lane Route 6A offers a direct conduit to a New England of yesteryear

In Barnstable, 6A skirts bayside wetlands (and a fishing shack). The East Coast's largest marsh covers 4,000 acres here. (Jared Leeds)
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Much of the archival research on Cape Cod is of a more personal nature—people trying to discover family roots. In Barnstable (pop. 48,854), another town on 6A, 13 miles from Brewster, the Sturgis Library, whose foundation was laid in 1644, draws amateur genealogists from all over. "The earliest settlers in Barnstable had Pilgrim relatives, so we get a lot of visitors trying to qualify for membership in the Mayflower Society," says Lucy Loomis, the library's director. Others seek connections, however tenuous, to the Presidents Bush, Benjamin Spock or any number of famous Americans whose ancestors lived in or near Barnstable centuries ago.

Visitors with quirkier research in mind also pore over the rich collection of local newspapers, merchant shipping records and documents donated to the library over many generations. A Californian recently spent two weeks at Sturgis looking for information about an ancestor who survived a 19th-century shipwreck and headed West with the Mormons. He "wanted to know if being saved from drowning had led his ancestor to a religious conversion," says Loomis.

Indeed, no personage or landmark is safe from scrutiny by history sleuths. No sooner have I begun sounding like a "wash-ashore"—as natives refer to a newcomer besotted enough by the cape to move here—than local historian Russell Lovell lets me in on a secret: Route 6A is of far more recent vintage than colonial times. "The name 'Old King's Highway' is a publicity gimmick," says the tall, lean octogenarian. The road was built largely in the 1920s when cars began replacing trains.

Lovell, a Sandwich (pop. 21,257) resident who wrote a 611-page tome that traces the town's history from a Pilgrim settlement in 1637 up to the present, leads me on a tour of what is most historically authentic about the place—17th-century wood-shingled houses built in the famed Cape Cod saltbox design, and the Sandwich Glass Museum, where hundreds of locally produced 19th- and early-20th-century collectibles, from kitchenware to lamps, are on display.

But like many first-timers, what I most want to do is visit Sandwich's famed antique automobile collection at the Heritage Museums & Gardens, a former private estate. Some 34 classic cars are housed in a Shaker-style round stone barn. ("The Shaker concept was that no devils could leap out at you if there were no corners for them to hide," Charles Stewart Goodwin, acting director of Heritage, tells me.) The collection includes a 1909 White Steamer, a 1912 Mercer Raceabout, a 1932 Auburn Boattail Speedster—and my favorite, a 1930 Duesenberg.

This one happens to have been owned by Gary Cooper. The star had the chassis painted yellow and lime and the seats upholstered in green leather. "He and Clark Gable used to race their Duesenbergs down the streets of Hollywood," says Goodwin. That's not the sort of behavior that would be tolerated along 6A. But then again, tasteful restraint, rather than glamorous excess, has always been the hallmark of this remarkable American conduit to our past.

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