LEICESTER — Where Main Street passes by Washburn Square, a small, reddish stone peeks out of the sloping turf with an ancient notice that is still true: You are 54 miles from Boston.
For years, travelers marked their progress — and mail carriers set their rates — with markers like this one along the Upper Boston Post Road that stretched into Manhattan. But in the center of this Worcester County town, the brownstone landmark has only just returned.
Preservationists pulled the stone from the obscurity of the town library’s attic, restored it, and stuck it back in the ground where it last stood in the 19th century, amid a statewide effort to save the relics of what was once a key route between the two metropolises of the Northeast.
For the communities along the old road — many of which grew up as waypoints along the highway — the Massachusetts Department of Transportation project is an opportunity to tell their story in a new way.
“It’s part of American history besides local history, and the more prominent your history is, the more you have going for you,” J. Donald Lennerton Jr., the chairman of the Leicester Historical Commission, said as he stood near one of the markers on a recent morning.
Some of the milestones date back as far as 1729, and the road goes back even further — to the 1600s, when colonists derived its narrow course from a system of Native American paths. Many roads in Massachusetts follow segments of the old highway. US Route 20 shares its name for a stretch, and the upper Post Road follows Route 9 for many miles before diving south toward Springfield.
Lennerton is among the few people who can track the vestiges of the old road snaking roughly along the course of Route 9 through Leicester. And it’s through the work of people like him that many stones have been preserved.
The stone on the square had been moved and built into a wall across the street before somebody eventually stashed it at a home several blocks away. It was gone for years before Lennerton, who was a local police officer — now retired, found it in a barn.
The stone languished in storage until MassDOT, which has been charged since 1960 with the care of the milestones, planted it in the square last summer as part of a a $128,510 preservation effort.
Thirty stones will be restored between Boston and the town of Warren, and a few of them are even being moved to more prominent sites.
“This is protecting them for the future,” said Mary Hafferty, an architectural historian with MassDOT who is overseeing the effort. “There’s a lot of pride for them.”
Watertown-based art conservator Daedalus Inc., which was hired for the job, completed about half of the stones in 2016, and plans to do the rest when the weather warms.
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In the tidy Shrewsbury center, a sturdy, round-topped block of granite looms at the corner of the Town Common. Its message, chiseled in uneven script brightened with black paint, says Boston is 43 miles away.
The marker, until recently, was practically hidden, obscured by a nearby ramp to Interstate 290 in what Historic District Commission member John Campbell describes as a “lousy, lousy spot.”
In September, the state moved the stone as part of the restoration project, erecting it alongside other monuments to the town’s history.
Despite some local opposition, Campbell said he was convinced the stone was still in the right spot in relation to Boston.
“I think the majority of people said, it’s history, and it should be in a prominent place,” he said.
Those who have studied the road say its course was never static. Some of the stones have been moved before — Campbell believes this one may have been relocated when the highway went in.
Eric Jaffe, author of “The King’s Best Highway,” a history of the Post Road, said that by making the markers more accessible, the state is also keeping its history visible.
“I never felt that the road was this perfectly straight line between two points,” he said.
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The idea for the restoration project began, like the road, in Boston. In 2011, a truck toppled the 6 mile stone on a Brighton sidewalk.
The repair, also by Daedalus, netted an award from the Boston Preservation Alliance, and MassDOT began working on a plan for more of the stones.
Last year, Daedalus restored one of the most significant stones on the road.
The Parting Stone in Roxbury divided the southern branch of the Post Road, which went through Providence and Connecticut, from the northern branch, where the repairs are happening.
Centuries ago, travelers at the Parting Stone would make for Brookline on a road that slanted toward Springfield, or they would head south.
On a rainy afternoon, Daedalus co-president Joshua Craine showed what his company had done to protect the stone, which sits just inches from the facade of an auto shop at Centre and Roxbury streets.
New cement seals the cracks, showing a little brighter than the rock in the wet weather, and the small areas of repair show the delicate balance between fixing the stones and disrupting their historic character.
Craine didn’t rechisel the markings on the stones, for instance, or change their shape. He only wanted to make sure the landmarks could stand up to New England weather.
“What we try to do as conservators is keep our hands out of it as much as possible,” he said. “It’s not my place to go back into a stone and recarve something.”