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!

Mmmmm… Swamp Cabbage!

You may be aware that the noble sabal palmetto is Florida’s state tree, but did you know you can eat it? And we’re not just talking about a survival tactic. From Wakulla and Apalachicola in the north to LaBelle and Immokalee in the south, Floridians all over the state have made a tradition out of preparing the hearts of these trees as a tasty dish called swamp cabbage.

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

The tradition of eating hearts of Florida palm trees likely predates the arrival of Europeans in North America. Captain Hugh Young, Andrew Jackson’s topographical engineer, sketched out a few remarks on the subject in his notes regarding the territory between the Aucilla and Suwannee rivers in 1818. He wrote:

“In the cypress swamps between Assilla and Sahwanne there is abundance of cabbage palmetto. […] It rises with a single stem to the height of forty feet and supports at the top a large mass resembling an immense pineapple, from which project a number of three-sided stems three or four feet long with leaves like the low palmetto but much larger and without prickles. The vegetable substance from which the stems and leaves are supported has in its center a white brittle mucilaginous mass composed of the centre folds of the leaves forming it, which may be eaten raw and when boiled has a taste somewhat like parsnips. In times of scarcity the Indians live on it, and it is said to be wholesome and nutritious.”

We at Florida Memory are still somewhat concerned about Captain Young’s use of the word mucilaginous to describe something edible, but overall his description is fairly accurate, and those of us who have had swamp cabbage  agree it is tasty.

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

As incoming settlers learned about swamp cabbage and began experimenting with it, it became a favorite side dish, especially in sparsely populated areas where the sabal (or cabbage) palmetto was more prevalent. In modern times, swamp cabbage can still be found on the menus of restaurants serving traditional Southern cooking. It is typically prepared by slicing up the heart of a section of palmetto trunk, called a “boot,” and then stewing it with spices and salt pork or some other seasoning meat. The finished product is grayish-green in color, and pairs well with fried fish, pork, or other traditional Florida entrees. Swamp cabbage can also be enjoyed raw, and often appears in salads by the more refined name of “heart of palm.”

Many Florida communities consider swamp cabbage something worth celebrating. Each year at the Florida Forest Festival in Perry, locals celebrate their forestry heritage with a parade, fireworks, live music, and the world’s largest free fish fry. Often, the menu has included swamp cabbage. Down south in Hendry County, residents of LaBelle hold a festival each year devoted to nothing but swamp cabbage, even choosing a Swamp Cabbage Queen to reign over the festivities. In Cedar Key, heart of palm salad served with fresh fruit and a scoop of pistachio ice cream is a favorite traditional restaurant menu item.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival's program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival’s program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

Tasty as swamp cabbage may be, the cooking and eating of it is the easy part. Cutting through layers of tough palmetto fibers to get to the edible “boot” without damaging the tender flesh inside is much more difficult. The following images from the Florida Photographic Collection illustrate the method used to harvest swamp cabbage.

Here, we see Ralph O'Brien of Tampa chopping away the

Here, we see Ralph O’Brien of Tampa chopping away the “straps,” which are actually the bases of the fronds or leaves of the tree. This must be done at an angle so that the axe does not become lodged in the inner “boot,” which can spoil the tender flesh inside (photo 1982).

Once the straps have been cleared away from the

Once the straps have been cleared away from the “boot,” the weight of the remaining attached fronds will cause it to break away from the tree. Here we see Ralph O’Brien chopping off the remaining fronds to make the boot easier to carry (photo 1982).

 

The outer layers of the

The outer layers of the “boot” are tough, bitter, and inedible. Here, we see Ralph O’Brien carefully splitting successive concentric layers of the boot to get down to the edible flesh at the center (photo 1982).

Once enough layers have been removed from the

Once enough layers have been removed from the “boot,” the remaining outer layers may be removed with a sharp knife. Here we see a Lafayette County woman working her way down to the edible flesh of the boot, which she then will slice into a bowl of cool water. The water temporarily prevents the swamp cabbage from turning brown (photo 1983).

Are you ready to try this Florida delicacy? Whether it’s eaten raw on a salad or boiled down with a generous helping of seasoning meat and black pepper, Florida’s state tree is both beautiful and a tasty treat with a long and storied past.

What are your favorite traditional Florida dishes? Tell us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post on Facebook!