Old Dixie Highway sign is marker to road history

wcrenshaw@macon.comJuly 12, 2014 

A remnant of an important part of Georgia history sits at the intersection of Houston Road and U.S. 41.

Ed Jackson will tell you it’s the state’s best-kept secret.

The 9-foot-tall concrete sign, likely built in the 1920s, once marked the way for the Central Dixie Highway, part of the Dixie Highway system that included parallel routes that ran from Michigan to Miami.

A Houston County public works crew dug up the sign three years ago while the intersection was being redone. Attached to a concrete footing the size an office desk, it was kept in storage until it was replaced recently, after getting a good cleaning.

The county is unknowingly at the forefront of what Jackson hopes will become a major effort in commemorating the Dixie Highway, the first paved highway connecting states from north to south. Jackson has researched the road for the past 10 years and wrote a detailed history of it for the Georgia Historical Society.

Next year, a gathering is being planned in Dalton, in north Georgia, to try to get communities to promote the Dixie Highway the way that Route 66 communities have done.

The Houston sign is rare. Jackson knows of only one other original Dixie Highway sign.

“What they have done there is wonderful,” he said of the preservation effort.

Getting to Florida

When Ford’s Model T began populating roads in the early 1900s, there was no Department of Transportation on either the state or national level.

People up north wanted to get to Florida, but it was almost impossible to drive it with dirt roads the whole way. Most people couldn’t afford to go by train or aircraft.

So on April 3, 1915, governors gathered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to figure out how to create a paved route to Florida. The Dixie Highway Association was born.

They came up with the ambitious idea of having each community along the route pay for the paving for their section.

Most of them were eager to do it, because they hoped to spur tourism. Some couldn’t afford it, so there would be unpaved sections along the way, even years later.

There was also a wide lack of uniformity in how the road was paved.

Some communities just sprayed down tar, some used concrete and some just used gravel. In some places the road was two lanes and in others it was just one. Most communities used prison labor or county jail inmates. It was a vast experiment in the best methods for paving a road.

Each locale also created signage, which is why the sign in Houston is unique.

The roadwork was done over the next 10 years or so, and the end result had a major impact.

Now the average person could afford to get to Florida, but with the speed of the cars, the trip from Chicago to Miami would take about 10 days, Jackson said. That meant there was a great need for motels, diners and gas stations all along the routes.

And that’s why the Dixie Highway system changed the South.

“It’s the biggest secret there is,” Jackson said. “Most history books don’t even mention the Dixie Highway.”

‘Couldn’t throw it away’

Ellie Loudermilk, president of the Perry Area Historical Society, has been researching the highway while the county prepared to replace the sign. The Central Dixie Highway took motorists from Macon to Jacksonville, connecting the east and west Dixie Highway routes.

“This was the main connector for Georgia,” she said.

Kitty Vinson Pullen lives in the area of the sign and she donated the land where the sign now sits, directly across from where Houston Road meets U.S. 41. She was glad the county put forth the effort to save the sign.

“It’s been here my whole life,” she said as she stood by the sign recently. “We couldn’t just throw it away.”

Next year’s meeting in Dalton will be on April 3 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the creation of Dixie Highway, although construction went on for years.

One reason the Dixie Highway didn’t make it into automotive folklore like Route 66 could be that it was relatively short-lived in name. By 1927, the federal government had gotten into the highway business and created the numbered highway system, replacing the Dixie Highway name. The Dixie Highway Association disbanded.

The part of the Dixie Highway that came through Middle Georgia was largely U.S. 41.

Today, there are few references to the Dixie Highway along the old routes, Jackson said. In some places, including Atlanta, the name is still used on the local section of the road, but that’s about it.

According to Loudermilk, there is a surviving remnant of the original highway just south of Perry. It can be seen next to U.S. 41 at Moss Oaks Road.

The goal of next year’s meeting is to try to get communities to embrace the Dixie Highway history with more signage and references to the historic route.

“It impacted the development of the South in a lot of ways,” Jackson said.

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