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!

A Home for Higher Learning

It’s hard to imagine Tallahassee without Florida State University or Gainesville without the University of Florida, but how did they get there? Believe it or not, at one time these institutions existed only on paper, and could have been located anywhere in the state. Multiple towns competed for the honor of hosting them, and the Legislature had to make some tough decisions to choose homes for Florida’s first institutions of higher learning.

Florida’s elected representatives recognized the value of higher education early on, but failed to translate their enthusiasm into action during the territorial era. In 1823, the territorial council voted to set aside two townships’ worth of public land to raise money for a seminary of higher learning. In 1836, Governor Richard Keith Call appointed a 14-member board to plan for a University of Florida. Very little concrete action materialized from these efforts, however, and Florida became a state in 1845 still lacking a state college of any kind.

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Floridians lamented the state of their educational system. Georgia had had a public university since 1785, while the University of Alabama had been open since 1831. Meanwhile, Florida’s young men and women were obliged to travel outside the state to finish their training, or not receive it at all. In January 1851, the Legislature took action by establishing two seminaries for teacher training, one for each side of the Suwannee River. Beyond this one directive, the act was silent as to where the two schools should be located. The Legislature would have to make that choice once the options were clearer.

Several towns throughout the state took this as their cue to make it very clear why they should be chosen as the site for one of the new seminaries. Several of their petitions to the Legislature have survived and are now part of Record Series 2153 at the State Archives of Florida. In recommending themselves, the petitioners focused on the healthfulness and convenience of their location. Pensacola’s advocates, for example, argued their proximity to the Gulf and points west would attract students from neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and perhaps even the West Indies. Ocala’s petitioners pointed to their position near the geographic center of the peninsula and the number of stage roads in the area as reasons for the town’s worthiness.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries. Click the image to enlarge it.

The committees writing these petitions realized, however, that it would take more than a few beautiful descriptive phrases to sway the Legislature. To sweeten the deal, they included offers of land, buildings, and even cash to strengthen their case.

East of the Suwannee River, Ocala in Marion County and Newnansville in Alachua County were the main contenders for a seminary. The Ocala petitioners offered to give the state 16 town lots in Ocala valued at $5,000, plus $1,600 cash, as well as the buildings then being used by the East Florida Independent Institute. The Institute had been established in 1852 by a New Englander named Gilbert Dennis Kingsbury, who went by the name S.S. Burton in Florida. Newnansville did not yet possess anything like the East Florida Independent Institute had to offer, but in their petition the citizens of the town pledged $5,000 toward constructing new facilities. The Legislature ultimately selected Ocala as the site for the state seminary east of the Suwannee, which after a series of transformations and a relocation to Gainesville became the University of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 - Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 – Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click image to enlarge and view transcript.

West of the Suwannee, Pensacola and Tallahassee were locked into a similar competition. Pensacola’s citizens promised to provide whatever land was necessary to build a seminary, but Tallahassee went much farther. The mayor and city council pledged to donate $10,000 to the cause, made up partly of $7,000 worth of land and buildings already under construction, plus the remainder in cash. City officials also offered to grant the institution an annuity of $1,500. Citizens of nearby Quincy in Gadsden County chimed in with a similar offer of the buildings used by the Quincy Academy, but the petitioners did not commit any specific amount of cash to the project, let alone an annuity. The Legislature chose Tallahassee as the site for the state seminary west of the Suwannee, which ultimately became the Florida State College for Women and later the Florida State University.

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school's football team was taken in 1899.

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school’s football team was taken in 1899. The team members are sitting on the steps of College Hall, the seminary’s main building, which stood from its construction in 1891 to 1909, when it was replaced by Westcott Hall, which still stands today.

What state institutions are located near your Florida community? Do you know how long they’ve been around, or how they came to exist? The State Library & Archives is home to a wealth of information on this subject – search Florida Memory, the State Library Catalog, and the Archives Online Catalog to learn more.

Florida’s Not-So-Native Tung

No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.

African-American workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

Workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

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Have You Heard of Milwaukee Springs?

Milwaukee Springs was a segregated African-American recreational area operating northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County at least as early as 1940. During World War II, white and African-American leaders alike had high hopes it would be turned into a health and recreation facility for African-American soldiers stationed at Camp Blanding and elsewhere.

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only image Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County.  Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only photograph Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County. Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

One of the earliest references to Milwaukee Springs comes from a biennial report of the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission published in 1940, which briefly notes that the commission’s game technician had participated in a wildlife camp for African-American boys held at this location.

The site surfaces again in the paper trail during World War II. As war clouds threatened during the months before Pearl Harbor, the state government and local communities organized defense councils to coordinate preparations for the U.S. to enter the conflict.  With Jim Crow in full force throughout Florida at this time, communities frequently used separate organizations to coordinate the wartime efforts of African-American civilians, with their leaders keeping in close contact with their white counterparts for the sake of cooperation.

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

Managing and rationing supplies and manpower were critical, of course, but these defense councils also planned for recreation, for civilians and soldiers alike.  A number of African-American leaders were concerned that troops of their race had too few options for recreational activities, which was bad for morale. A group of local Alachua County citizens led by Charles Chestnut, president of the Colored Businessmen’s Association of Gainesville and chairman of a local African-American civil defense organization, proposed that Milwaukee Springs be converted into a facility to provide African-American soldiers with a place to relax during their time away from Camp Blanding or other nearby military posts.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941 (Series 419 – Papers of the State Defense Council, Box 33, State Archives of Florida)

Chestnut’s proposal won the endorsement of local Alachua County representative Samuel Wyche Getzen, and together these men called on Mary McLeod Bethune of the federal Office of Negro Affairs and Executive Secretary James White of the NAACP for help in getting the federal government involved.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives.  Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929.  Photo dated 1959.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929. Photo dated 1959.

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus.  The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration (circa 1940s).

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (circa 1940s).

Although the Federal Security Administration appears to have visited the site to consider the project’s worthiness, and a public hearing was held to discuss the matter in early 1942, it is unclear whether Milwaukee Springs ever became the center of African-American health and recreation its sponsors had hoped for.  In fact, aside from a few references in the documents of Florida’s State Defense Council and the papers of the NAACP, very little else exists to document the site.

If you or someone you know has more information about Milwaukee Springs, we’d love to know about it.  Contact us using our web feedback form, and mention this blog post in the subject line.