Looking Backward on the Dixie Highway

dixiehighwayPop South welcomes this post by Tammy Ingram, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. Her book Dixie Highway: Roads and Modernization in the South, 1900-1930 is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

I like to drive. My dad taught me how when I was seven or eight years old and turned me loose with his old one-ton flatbed truck. With the tattered bench seat pushed all the way forward, I toured the back roads around our South Georgia farm with my trusty co-pilot, a chihuahua named Scooter, perched on the seat next to me. When I was older (and legal), I ventured farther, this time with a stack of maps by my side. My best memories are from those road trips—my first solo long-distance drive to college; a cross-country journey with an old boyfriend; and speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at 4:00 AM on the 1000-mile trip home during grad school.

I got to know the South from behind the wheel of an automobile, just like the farmers and tourists I write about. But the South they encountered looked very different. At the turn of the twentieth century, a jumble of muddy roads covered the South like a bed of briars. Roads were not long-distance routes, but rather short paths that fed local traffic to the nearest railroad depot. Main roads branched outward from railroad towns, and thousands of miles of secondary roads linked them to farms. There were no road signs or mile markers to guide you. If you weren’t from around these parts, you’d have a hard time navigating the roads that linked isolated farms to nearby market towns but not much else.

These problems became the focus of a grassroots campaign called the Good Roads Movement. Though it began among urban bicyclists in the 1880s, by the 1910s the automobile craze had transformed it into a nationwide crusade to improve rural roads.

Section of the Dixie Highway from Chattanooga to Atlanta via Dalton (there was a rival routing option through Rome, as well) Atlanta Constitution, March 28, 1915

Between 1915 and 1927, the Dixie Highway served as the centerpiece the Good Roads Movement in the South. Made up of hundreds of local roads stitched together, the Dixie Highway looped 6000 miles from Lake Michigan to Miami Beach and back up again. It was originally planned as a tourist route to steer wealthy motorists from the Midwest to fancy vacation resorts in South Florida, but within a few years the Dixie Highway became a full-fledged interstate highway system—the first in the nation—and served tourists, businessmen, and farmers, alike.

The highway that helped to transform and modernize the South, however, reflected profoundly conservative ideas about the region’s place in the nation.

The Dixie Highway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, an eccentric Indianapolis millionaire, and his wealthy friends in the auto industry. With the support of others in the Good Roads Movement, they used the highway to lobby for state and federal highway aid. Southern support was critical to this process. Yet in the Hoosiers’ imagining of the Dixie Highway route, the South was little more than an unavoidable place on the way to vacation paradise in South Florida.

In order to promote the highway to northern tourists, they had to market the South as a destination in and of itself, not just an obstacle separating Chicago snowbirds from the warm Florida sunshine. And in order to persuade southern voters and taxpayers to fund long-distance highways, which they derided as “peacock alleys” that served only wealthy motorists, they had to convince them that tourism in the South would pay.

They started with the name. Originally called the Cotton Belt Route, by early 1915 they had adopted a snappier sounding name that, as this blog’s author Karen L. Cox has argued, was not just a geographic reference but a brand that evoked popular nostalgia for the Old South. The Dixie Highway sounded like a road to the past as much as a road to a place. It presented the South as an exotic locale, and idea, to explore and exploit.

Although traffic would flow both ways along the Dixie Highway, its Hoosier boosters envisioned it as a path “leading down into the South,” where there existed “wonderful scenery that is most unusual and attractive” to Midwestern motorists. Some even believed the Dixie Highway could ease lingering sectional tensions. The New York Times dubbed it the “Dixie Peaceway” and mawkishly described it as “a memorial . . . symbolical of the accord between brethren which shall never again be broken.” In Illinois and Indiana, “Dixie” gas stations, restaurants, and hotels conjured up images of an unfamiliar but pleasant destination. Oil and gas companies capitalized on the interest in southern tourism, as well, by distributing road maps to guide tourists through the South.

But Yankee entrepreneurs were not the only ones who drew on stereotypes about the South. In Georgia, Dixie Highway boosters promoted Old South and Civil War tourism.

Dixie Highway restaurant in Illinois, courtesy Tammy Ingram.

Looking backward, however, proved incongruous with the challenges of building a modern highway system. Even while southern supporters of the Dixie Highway joined the campaign for state and federal aid, they clung to old social and political institutions that preserved local control.

The most ruinous was the county chain gang. Chain gangs were not unique to the South, but by the 1920s, when state- and federal-aid highways were beginning to take shape, most states outside the region had turned to contract labor. But not southerners. Chain gangs allowed local authorities to control black labor, so southerners preserved them long after other states had abandoned them.

As soon as modern highway building challenged their sacred institutions, southerners retreated. By the time state and federal highway markers began to replace Dixie Highway markers in the late 1920s, the Good Roads Movement was dead. The backlash against the emerging highway bureaucracy did not forestall road work altogether, but it delayed the development of a modern, integrated highway system in the South for decades. The construction of the Eisenhower system in the 1950s and 1960s transformed large parts of the South, but it had little impact on the quality of local roads and state highways miles away from the interstates. In the 1980s, when I was growing up in rural Georgia, a hard rain could wash out half of the county’s dirt roads.

A few years ago, I drove one of the few remaining sections of the original Dixie Highway, a narrow road that winds through peach country near Macon, Georgia. In some spots, you can see in your rearview mirror a stretch of Interstate 75, the modern, multi-lane, limited-access freeway that replaced the Dixie Highway. You won’t see much of the South driving eighty-five miles an hour along the latter route, but the former won’t take you where you need to go. If ever there was a fitting memorial to the Good Roads Movement, this might just be it.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Heritage, Not Hate”

Wow, that was quick.  Less than a week ago, members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd were giving an interview on CNN in which lead guitarist Gary Rossington explained that the band had disassociated itself from the image with which it’s long been known – the Confederate battle flag.  Just a few days later?  Rossington, the last remaining member of the original band, all of a sudden got his Confederate memory back and told fans on the band’s website “The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate.” He needed to do something, because the band’s fans threatened to secede from Lynyrd Skynyrd nation and take their dollars with them.

Photo courtesy of examiner.com

Actually, he was right the first time when he told CNN that the image had “became such an issue, about race and stuff.”  Yea, race and stuff.

That stuff, as he initially pointed out, was that groups like the KKK, skinheads, and let’s go ahead and say segregationists (please) had, in his words, “kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers.”  Well, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.

THAT flag, as we know, is one of many Confederate flags, but it’s the one that draws the  most ire.  Yes, it was used by southern soldiers as they headed into battle, but let’s be clear:  by 1863 the war was over the institution of slavery and the Confederate army was there to protect it.  States’ rights?  Yes, a state’s right to maintain slavery.  There’s no getting around it.

So, let’s say you buy the idea that this was simply about southern soldiers and therefore the “Heritage, Not Hate” slogan works for you, because you don’t want to be thought of as a racist.  Then what can you say about the heritage of that symbol since the Civil War?  The war lasted 4 years, but the battle flag has often been used over the last 150 years as a symbol of racial hatred.  What about THAT heritage?

The flag’s heritage is indelibly tied to the institution of slavery. Courtesy: Times Picayune, 2000.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is free to do what is best for its fan base and especially its bottom dollar, but as the saying goes “don’t get it twisted”–in this case, the history.  Gary Rossington was right the first time when he said that the negative connotations of the flag had to do with “race and stuff.”  The vitriol with which the fans have responded over the band’s initial decision to quit using the flag is proof enough that race is still at issue.

And just because you say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” doesn’t make it so.

Republican Candidates in the South: A Confederacy of Dunces. So, too, MSNBC’s Martin Bashir & Co.

Oh, for goodness sake!  The Republican candidates for president went South and the next thing you know Mitt Romney touted “cheesy grits” and practiced saying “ya’ll,” and Rick Santorum adopted a hick accent and told people “I got kin here in Mississippi.  I’m not sure. . . (don’t say “what I think about it!”). . .I’m very proud of it.”  Shew!  That was a close one.

I think that Kathleen Parker hit the nail on the head in her opinion piece in the Washington Post that southerners deserve better from their candidates.  The one thing that she missed, however, is that Santorum, Romney, and even Newt Gingrich aren’t speaking to black southerners (or Latinos who represent the fasting growing population in the South) AT ALL.

What made it worse, for me at least, was how MSNBC covered the Republican campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama–particularly Martin Bashir and company–as they chuckled their way through a discussion of the candidates.  Believe me, there is a lot to chuckle about when you hear the gems that fall from Romney’s mouth, but that shouldn’t let Bashir off the hook.  His show began with the banjo theme song from Deliverance followed by his opening statement “Oh, my goodness, it is a deep fried primary day down in Dixie.” Really? Hush yo’ mouth!  And then, between the graphic about Good Ol’ Boys (with the faces of Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich superimposed over a former Dukes of Hazzard logo), describing the Deep South as the “Cracker Barrel circuit” and then pondering what will happen “down in Faulkner country,”  Bashir did as much to perpetuate an image of the South as moonshine-swilling, varmint-eating, backward region as did the candidates themselves.   In sum, the national media is often no better than the candidates themselves in understanding the complexities of the South and the people who live here.

And this is what we are in for people, when the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte.  Because the media pundits, who are supposed to be “informed,”  will be looking for what makes this a southern city, and will likely miss what makes it as American as apple pie.

Panel Discussion of Dreaming of Dixie at UNC Charlotte, February 21st

The Center for The Study of the New South will convene a panel discussion of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture, by Dr. Karen Cox, on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 3:30 in the Halton Reading Room, in the J. Murrey Atkins Library.

Participants will include David Goldfield (history), Richard Leeman (communication studies), Debra Smith (Africana Studies), and Mary Newsom (Urban and Regional Affairs). Sonya Ramsey (History) will serve as moderator.

This campus event will be the precursor to the Center for the Study of the New South’s annual lecture, on Tuesday, March 13, at the Levine Museum of the New South. This year’s distinguished speaker will be Dr. Cox.

Confederate Tchotkes and the American Dream

On a recent vacation to Lake Lure, North Carolina, I drove over to the small town of Chimney Rock where people can hike to Hickory Nut Falls, grab a bite to eat, do a little gem mining, and perhaps stop in a souvenir shop to buy mementos of their trip.  I didn’t necessarily want a souvenir, but given the heat and humidity it made sense to duck into a few of the shops to cool off and to see what was for sale.

The "Woman Getter" a.k.a. the "Persuader," a.k.a. the "Man Tamer"

And boy was I in for a treat.  In addition to some of the ridiculous hillbilly items being sold (note photo of the “Woman Getter” a.k.a. the “Persuader,” a.k.a. the “Man Tamer”), Confederate tchotkes were everywhere and not just in one store.

This, of course, is surprising since the mountain South is not known for loyal Confederates.  Tourists who follow the signs along North Carolina’s Civil War Discovery Trail near Hickory Nut Gorge learn not about staunch Confederates, but about Union General George Stoneman’s raiders and his order to Colonel William Palmer to join in the pursuit to capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose flight from Richmond had entered North Carolina in late April 1865.

Rebel Potholders

Well, in the same store that carried the “Woman Getter” there were items emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag ranging from a pot holder, useful for Rebel-hot recipes from the Confederate Cookbook, to bookends with three-dimensional pistols attached to protect your copies of Southern By the Grace of God or When the South was Southern.

Battlin' Bookends

In a second store where I sought a reprieve from the heat there was an enormous selection of t-shirts from Dixie Outfitters—a merchandiser that offers a wide array of items displaying messages of “pride in the Southern way of life.”  Perhaps you’ve seen them.  Using images of Confederate soldiers, Robert E. Lee, and yes, the Confederate battle flag, the shirts practically scream that the Civil War is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of some southerners (those who would buy these shirts).

"Dixie Will Never Die"

On one, with an image of Lee, the slogan reads “Dixie Will Never Die,” and another for the “Southern Girl” tells you that among her many qualities are “Boot Scootin’,” “Handgun Packin’,” “Pickup Drivin’,” and “Bass Fishin’.” Of course, she wouldn’t be complete without also being a “Belle of the Ball.”

While I’m a historian, I must be part sociologist.   The historian in me understood that the history of this area of North Carolina ran counter to the sale of such pro-Confederate souvenirs.  Yet the sociologist in me could not help but notice that this store was owned by two immigrants, living the American Dream.  The couple, a Hispanic man and his wife, who I guessed to be from Eastern Europe, were the proprietors of the store.  When I asked her why they were selling all of these pro-Southern t-shirts she responded vehemently “I am from southern!”  She couldn’t have known I asked out of curiosity and perhaps thought I was challenging her in some way.  Thinking on it, I wondered if she indeed had been challenged about it before. Maybe by some of those present-day Confederate sympathizers (a.k.a. “Neo-Confederates) who, let’s face it, are very likely to be anti-immigrant in their thinking.

A "Southern Thang?"

I wanted to write this piece in an effort to unravel the complexities of what I was experiencing there in the little town of Chimney Rock:  the Confederate souvenirs in what, historically, was not so Confederate.  The immigrants selling shirts emblazoned with “It’s a Southern Thang, Ya’ll Wouldn’t Understand,” a slogan that is clearly a ripoff of “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand.”  So, I turned to Winston Churchill.  Yes, Churchill.

Speaking about Russia during World War II, Winston Churchill said:  “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”  I felt very similarly about my experience—that what is going on in Chimney Rock and in similar tourist attractions around the South is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key.  That key is capitalism.