Headin’ South on the Dixie Highway

dixiehighwayPop South spoke with Tammy Ingram, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston, a couple of months ago about her new book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South.  If you’re traveling between Michigan and Miami this summer, you might actually be driving on portions of the Dixie Highway.  Read about this road that connected North and South causing some to refer to it as the “Dixie Peaceway.”

PS: Briefly, what is the Dixie Highway?

“The Dixie Highway was the first modern interstate highway system in the country, and it lasted from approximately 1915 to 1925. It was originally planned as a single route between Chicago and Miami Beach, but a fierce routing competition transformed it into an ambitious and sophisticated network of nearly 6000 miles of roads looping through the Midwest and South from the Canadian border all the way to Miami Beach.”

PS: How did the Dixie Highway change the South?

“The obvious ways that the Dixie Highway changed the South were economic: It gave farmers easier and more flexible marketing options for their crops, allowed rural southerners access to larger towns and cities, facilitated the Great Migration of rural African Americans, and opened up the South to new tourist-related businesses. It changed the ways in which people moved around in the South. Before the Dixie Highway, roads were entirely local in both scope and governance. But the Dixie Highway challenged that model by making automobile travel an alternative to railroads for long distance trade and travel. In doing so, the Dixie also transformed southern—and national—politics by centralizing control over massive public works projects. During the brief lifespan of the Dixie Highway, road building shifted from the jurisdiction of local authorities into the hands of state and federal bureaucrats who wielded tremendous political power and controlled massive budgets.”

PS: Since this is a blog on the South in pop culture, can you tell us about the ways that the DH entered into American popular culture?

The DH also made it into popular song. Image credit: IN Harmony Sheet Music Collection, Indiana University
The DH also made it into popular song. Image credit: IN Harmony Sheet Music Collection, Indiana University

“Although many people have never heard of the Dixie Highway, a century ago it helped to create the modern automobile tourism industry. Gas stations, roadside motels, and tourist attractions were unheard of in most of the country—and certainly in the South—before the Dixie Highway, but by the mid-1920s they lined the route from Michigan to Miami Beach.

The highway also helped to turn the South itself into a destination instead of just an obstacle for wealthy northern and Midwestern tourists bound for Florida resorts. Enterprising southerners marketed everything from antebellum mansions to peach and cotton farms to automobile tourists, and northern businesses named (or in some cases, re-named) their establishments in honor of the Dixie Highway. “Dixie” motels and gas stations in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were commonplace. So were songs, postcards, magazines, and road maps that advertised (and celebrated) the Dixie Highway.”

 

 

PS: As a native Georgian, how do you think being a southerner adds to your perspective on the Dixie Highway?

“I learned how to drive on narrow, rural dirt roads that were not entirely unlike those that comprised the original route of the Dixie Highway. Navigating those roads could be difficult even in the best of weather. When it rained, some of the roads were impassable. We obviously also had modern, paved roads in South Georgia by the 1980s, but we were isolated in other ways: We were among the last places to get things like cable television and even dial-up internet, and the only tourists who ever passed through town were on their way to the beaches in the Florida panhandle. When I discovered the Dixie Highway while doing research for my original dissertation topic on the Great Migration, I think I was drawn to it because the struggles rural people were facing at the turn of the twentieth century felt a little bit familiar to me.”

PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?

Tammy Ingram, author of a new book on the Dixie Highway. Photo credit: College of Charleston
Tammy Ingram, author of a new book on the Dixie Highway. Photo credit: College of Charleston

“I’m excited about my next book project, which is tentatively titled Dixie Mafia: Sex, Race, and Organized Crime in the Sunbelt South. It covers a wide array of organized crime activities in the postwar South, but it focuses on a story that has long fascinated me: The murder of Albert Patterson in Phenix City, Alabama in 1954. Like many other small towns situated near military bases, Phenix City’s main industry in those days was vice: Mobsters made tens of millions of dollars a year on gambling and prostitution, and local law enforcement and city leaders were getting a cut of the profits in exchange for their cooperation. Patterson became a target for the mob because he ran for attorney general and promised to go after them. But they went after him, instead. It’s a fascinating story, and all the more so when you consider it within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.”

 

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.