The Dixie Highway Comes to Florida

Florida is one of several states where, once in a while, you’re subject to come across a road called “Old Dixie Highway.” Some of the roads with this name are prominent thoroughfares, while others have become mere side streets over the years, bypassed by larger highways built along the outskirts of town.  In the early twentieth century, all of these roadway segments were stitched together into what was briefly the largest interstate highway system in the United States.

Outline of the Dixie Highway, drawn up by R.J. Shutting for the Dixie Highway Association (ca. 1919).

Outline of the Dixie Highway, drawn up by R.J. Shutting for the Dixie Highway Association (ca. 1919). Click the map to enlarge it.

The Dixie Highway was the brainchild of Carl Graham Fisher, the same entrepreneur who helped develop Miami Beach in the early 1910s. Fisher believed northerners would pay top dollar for lots in South Florida, but he recognized the need for a reliable highway to funnel his customers southward. He had already been involved in promoting the Lincoln Highway, an east-west route across the northern United States. That project had run into trouble, however. Promoters had expected private funding to cover the cost of building the road, but they were never able to raise the necessary ten million dollars. Fisher realized that for a highway connecting Miami with the northern states to succeed, it would require both private and public backing.

Carl Graham Fisher with his Packard in Elkhart, Indiana (1915).

Carl Graham Fisher with his Packard in Elkhart, Indiana (1915).

In November 1915, Carl Fisher announced his intention to build the nation’s first true national automobile highway linking the North and South. He originally called it the “Cotton Belt Route,” but the press quickly latched onto the road’s symbolic value as a peace gesture binding the nation together. Keep in mind there were still a number of individuals living at this time who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The New York Times suggested the new highway ought to be called the “Dixie Peaceway.” Over time, however, the name settled into the familiar “Dixie Highway” we still see on road signs today.

Fisher originally intended for the highway to run between Chicago and Miami, but the route in between was up for debate. Virtually every community between these two endpoints wanted to be located along the profitable new road. Fisher and his backers decided to organize a conference of governors and other state representatives in Chattanooga in April 1915 to hammer out the details and form the Dixie Highway Association. Constructing and maintaining the roadway would remain the responsibility of the states and communities along the route, but the Association would help with marketing, surveying, and other coordinating tasks.

Parade celebrating the opening of the Dixie Highway in Dania (1915).

Parade celebrating the opening of the Dixie Highway in Dania (1915).

The Dixie Highway Association called on each governor whose state would be traversed by the new road to appoint two commissioners to decide on the best route and report back with their views. Governor Park Trammell appointed George W. Saxon, a banker from Tallahassee, and Samuel A. Belcher, a road construction magnate from Miami, as Florida’s commissioners. Carl Fisher and most of the road’s advocates had long assumed the Dixie Highway would enter the state north of Jacksonville and simply follow the Atlantic coast to Miami. Highway enthusiasts in the middle of the state and along the Gulf Coast, however, wanted to reap some of the highway’s benefits for themselves. The Central Florida Highway Association, a powerful lobbying organization with members from Naples to Tallahassee, argued for a western branch of the Dixie Highway that would offer travelers an alternate route between Macon, Georgia and Miami via a string of towns on the western side of the Florida peninsula.

Several counties established gateways like this one welcoming Dixie Highway travelers (circa 1920).

Several counties established gateways like this one welcoming Dixie Highway travelers (circa 1920).

Belcher and Saxon agreed a western route was needed, but they couldn’t agree on where it should be located. Saxon and the Central Florida Highway Association wanted to include towns near the Gulf coast north of Gainesville, including Trenton, Perry, and Tallahassee. South of Kissimmee, they wanted the Dixie Highway to proceed as far southwest as Arcadia before turning back east to rejoin the main route near Jupiter. Belcher thought this route was too long and winding to properly serve northern travelers. He envisioned a highway proceeding almost due north from Gainesville, passing through Live Oak or Lake City before entering Georgia near Valdosta. South of Kissimmee, he thought the road should head straight for the coast, hitting somewhere around Melbourne as U.S. 192 does today.

While Belcher’s route was more direct, Saxon argued that the Gulf coast communities had already pledged considerable support for the highway, with taxpayers even voting to bond themselves for the necessary funding. If their communities were bypassed, he warned, those communities might withdraw their support for the project altogether. Belcher ultimately relented, and the Dixie Highway was established with two routes through Florida, connected by cross-state roads at several points.

Map of the proposed Dixie Highway in Florida, showing both the originally contemplated eastern and western routes, along with the bonds pledged by each county and the amount of work completed. Originally printed in the Atlanta Constitution, June 4, 1916.

Map of the proposed Dixie Highway in Florida, showing both the originally contemplated eastern and western routes, along with the bonds pledged by each county and the amount of work completed. Originally printed in the Atlanta Constitution, June 4, 1916. Click the image to enlarge it.

The Dixie Highway was as successful as its founders had hoped, but it survived only a short time under its original name. All of the commotion over funding the road and selecting its route had provoked questions about the federal government’s potential role in developing interstate highways. A coalition of local authorities, business owners, and auto industry leaders began calling for Washington to simplify the process of expanding the nation’s highway infrastructure by funding and supervising a network of federal roads.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Bankhead Act, which pumped $75 million of federal money into the idea. This was the beginning of the U.S. highway system we know today. As that system grew, older blazed trails like the Dixie and Lincoln highways were absorbed into it. Soon, the name “Dixie Highway” was only used locally on certain segments of the original route, usually with “Old” in front of it. The name “Dixie Highway” also lived on in the names of businesses like the “Dixie Highway Garage” or the “Dixie Highway Inn” that had sought to link themselves to the novelty of the new road.

A segment of the Dixie Highway in Perry (Taylor County) still carries its original name, as this sign at the corner of Old Dixie Highway and Jefferson Street indicates (2016). Photo courtesy of Susan Moody.

A segment of the Dixie Highway in Perry (Taylor County) still carries its original name, as this sign at the corner of Old Dixie Highway and Jefferson Street indicates (2016). Photo courtesy of Susan Moody.

Next time you’re driving through Florida and encounter a portion of the “Old Dixie Highway,” we encourage you to drive it and try to capture a bit of the excitement that must have filled northern travelers coming to the Sunshine State for the first time. You’ll not only be getting off the beaten path for a while – you’ll also be driving down a unique piece of Florida history!

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21 thoughts on “The Dixie Highway Comes to Florida

  1. very interesting for this Florida Native. I knew about Carl Fischer in Detroit, Indianapolis and Miami Beach but much of this was new to me.

  2. Two commissioners in each state to decide on the route. Wonder what thought was given to the best route to protect the environment and avoid wetlands.
    Good article.

  3. There are stretches of the road still called Old Dixie Highway from Stuart to Hobe Sound and in Jupiter.

    A section of the road north of Stuart in the community of Rio is called Dixie Highway (no Old). The border between Rio and Jensen Beach still has one of the road-spanning welcome arches from the 1920s (it was restored back in the 1990s).

    A very old section is in Jonathan Dickinson State Park (abandoned in 1942 due to the creation of Camp Murphy and never reopened due to the creation of the state park).

  4. I live in taylor co. fl.( perry )and old dixie runs , ( north – south ) I take it almost every day,there’s less traffic and it’s faster to get to the south of town than to take 19.

  5. In Georgia portions of the Dixie Highway are included in the Georgia 90-Mile Yard Sale (also called the Dixie Highway Yard Sale). My sister and I traveled from Marietta to Ringgold following the route and participating in the yard sale. Lot’s of small towns beautiful scenery along the way.

  6. With the current mood to erase the word “Dixie” from our vocabulary, this article is helpful to educate those without a sense of history.

  7. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale near Old Dixie Hwy. I collect items with my name and have the Dixie Hwy map that mentions Tallahassee and the Tin Can tourists at Lake Ella!

  8. Thank you for the article. In Illinois we have been sponsoring a Drivin’ the Dixie car tour since 2002 with a Model A Ford Car Club. First the event was for cars only older than 1972 but so many cars were following that we finally opened up the tour to all vehicles. I, as chair of the Village of Homewood Heritage Committee, coordinate the towns from Blue Island to Momence with each town determining special events or route in their town to highlight the history of the road and their towns. We designed street pole banners that say “From the Great Lakes to the Gulf” and metal street signs with the Dixie logo in red ,white and blue. What a great feeling to see these signs all along the Dixie in Illinois. We installed a Dixie Highway Illinois State Historical Society marker and a wooden sign post in Homewood stating the distance to various cities along the route clear to Miami. The effort to promote history has received an Award from the Illinois State Historical Society and a book has been written on the Dixie in Illinois which also received an award. For the celebration of the centennial of the Dixie Highway the Model A Ford car tour started from the Art Institute in Chicago where the Dixie starts in Illinois to downstate Danville where the route turns into Indiana. Also for the centennial towns were given a 4 X 6 foot sign with the national map, a history of the Dixie and photos and history of their town. The signs were purchased with proceeds of the Drive. A nominal fee of $20.00 for registration includes all passengers. Many towns provide refreshments and a hot dog lunch, an inexpensive day-long event. That’s the beauty of the event. Towns have control of what happens in their town and pay for the event in their town. For the annual Drive some vehicles begin in Danville, drive north to meet us in Momence in a park on an island in the Kankakee River. This has developed a heartwarming relationship with the municipalities, historical societies and chambers of commerce along the route. We have had 130 to 200 vehicles each year plus folks participating the the events in each town or just coming to see the cars. We have had a 1912,and a steam powered car, motorcycles and trucks. The signage effort also received an award from the Chicago Southland Visitors and Convention Bureau which presented a Award of Merit for promoting places to visit and things to do. A National Heritage Corridor is in the in the draft stage which will include the area three miles west of the Dixie in Illinois to Porter County in Indiana. See you along the Dixie!

  9. Very nice summary. The original Dixie Highway Association existed from 1915 – 1927 when the Association ceased operations, primarily as a result of the beginning of the U.S. highway system in 1926. As noted, the name has carried forward along sections of the original road in most, if not all, of the original ten states (MI, IL, IN, OH, KY, NC, SC, TN, GA, FL).

    For those interested in additional information about the historic road, there is a Dixie Highway group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DixieHwy/

  10. I am a Native of Florida. My grandfather drove his family from Ohio to West Palm Beach in 1925. My dad was 2 years old. My grandfather said a lot of the road in Florida was just dirt. It was a one way road. If you met someone coming the other way a conversation began about who had the shortest distance to back up and get off the road so the other could pass. No arguing, no road rage. I am assuming the railroad was there first as Dixie parallels the rails as far north as I have driven. I live in Tequesta and drive part of Dixie and always marvel at what a feat that was. I thank my grandfather every day for making that journey.

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