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!

Signs of the Times

Signs are a critical part of driving. They tell us what road we’re on, how fast we can safely travel, what obstacles lie ahead, and how far we have left to the next major landmark. Road signage is especially important in a state like Florida, which hosts millions of tourists each year. After all, nothing ruins a vacation as quickly as getting lost, right?

As important as they are in the here and now, signs also have a history. Changes in road signage over time are in many ways reflections of changes in the broader history of the state.

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

When automobiles first came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t much precedent for how the roads would be signed. Cities and towns often signed their local streets, but seldom were the roads outside of town well-marked, and numbered routes like we have today were almost entirely unheard of. Animal-powered carriages and carts had no speedometers, so there was no use in posting a speed limit. The general rule was to drive sensibly, and ask for directions if you lost your way.

Automobiles made it easier for folks to travel farther away from home. They also traveled faster, which made driving more hazardous, especially on curves and near intersections with other roads and railroads. Some local communities began posting signs to help visitors find their way more easily. Businesses often did the same, combining safety messages and directional information with advertising.

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

One of the key characteristics of road signs during this period was the lack of standardization. Public and private entities made signs using whatever colors, shapes, and materials they believed suited their purposes. The result was a bewildering array of road signs so thick motorists often had to slow down or stop completely to read them.

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

Apparently some speed limit signs even came with attendants, like this one located in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

An unusual speed limit sign in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

Florida wasn’t the only state having this problem, and it wasn’t long before highway officials across the country decided it was time for a solution. In November 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials met in Detroit and agreed upon a system of standardized highway signs to recommend to their respective states. Florida’s State Road Department chose to accept the suggested signage, and by the 1930s the signs along the state roadways were beginning to look more uniform. The Legislature also began restricting the number and placement of billboards to make things less confusing for motorists.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department's sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department’s sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A few additional changes have happened over the years. The signs marking U.S. highway routes, for example, were originally die-cut to be shaped like shields. These were later replaced by cheaper square signs with the U.S. shield and number printed on them.

In 1956, Florida implemented a system of color-coded U.S. highway signs to help motorists more easily follow their desired routes. The color-coded system was later discontinued because the colored signs faded faster and had to be replaced more often than the standard black and white ones.

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

As roads grew wider and speeds grew faster, it also became necessary to posts signs that would be highly visible from all travel lanes. This was especially important near exits and entrances on the freeways, so motorists could choose the correct lane well ahead of an intersection. As a result, signs became larger and many were placed overhead so they could be viewed more easily from the inner travel lanes.

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Road signs are just one example of commonplace objects with a story to tell about Florida’s history. What other objects can you think of that have changed over the years? Start a conversation by leaving a comment below or sharing this post and your thoughts on Facebook!

Also, if you happen to live near Tallahassee or will be passing through sometime soon, stop by the State Library & Archives to have a look at our extensive map collection. Our holdings include a variety of local, county, and state highway maps dating back to the earliest years of the automobile age!

What’s In a Name?

About 200 yards below where the Withlacoochee River empties into the Suwanee lies the remains of the small town of Ellaville. This was once a thriving sawmill and manufacturing center owned by George Franklin Drew, Florida’s governor from 1877 to 1881. Very little evidence of the Drew home or the sawmill remains, but the place is still significant for another reason.

Three bridges cross the Suwanee River within sight of one another at this point. One carries the railroad, one carries U.S. 90, and one lies defunct, open only to foot traffic. This bridge, the Hillman Bridge, has perhaps the most interesting story of the three, because of the minor brouhaha that broke out over its name when it was first built in 1926.

Read more »

The Trials and Tribulations of the Early Automobile in Florida

The automobile is a beautiful toy,
And a useful one, too, as everyone knows;
But you really can’t count it an unalloyed joy
For it’s only a pleasure, as far as it goes.

Florida Highways, December 1923

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

While automobile use was on the rise in the 1910s and 1920s, state and local governments across the United States struggled to build the roads necessary for safe and speedy motoring.  Florida, with its unique and varied geography, posed some particularly daunting challenges for motorists and road builders alike.  The Florida State Legislature created the State Road Department in 1915, along with a fund to aid highway construction.  Fifteen percent of the money collected for automobile registrations was set aside to help support the new projects, along with a new property tax.

Despite the efforts of both state and federal governments to provide a system of good roads, however, curious visitors to Florida frequently ran into trouble getting from place to place.  Their enthusiasm for exploring the Sunshine State knew no bounds, but it would be a few years before the state’s road system could catch up.  The following photos depict some of the trouble Florida’s early motorists encountered.

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route.  The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City.  The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar.  Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route. The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City. The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar. Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians.  Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians. Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Interested in the history of the roads in your county?  The former State Road Department’s publication Florida Highways is an excellent place to start your research.  Visit the State Library of Florida to get a look.

You might also be interested in our collection of photographs from the Florida Department of Transportation.