Some might regard road building as a mundane topic, but as we learn in this well-written and accessible account of the Dixie Highway road building is so much more than dirt and engineering. Indeed, the creation of this north-south highway provides insight into a host of issues that both defined and redefined the South during the early decades of the twentieth century. As Tammy Ingram argues, “road building was a crucial linchpin in the transition to the modern South” (p. 2).
In Dixie Highway, Ingram uses the construction of “the Dixie” to [End Page 134] illustrate several issues that were at stake in the creation of a system of roads in the South with a special focus on Georgia, which had the most highway mileage and where the issues of highway construction in the South were laid bare. Chapters on the Good Roads movement, planning the highway, the impact of World War I, the role of chain-gang labor in building roads, and, lastly, the politics of highway construction help to explicate the complicated nature of road building in the region. As Ingram makes clear, despite the enthusiasm of boosters, businessmen, and farmers alike for the highway, the means by which it was built often came into conflict with the region’s deeply embedded cultural traits, particularly around issues of race and local control.
The Dixie Highway was the brainchild of automobile enthusiast and real-estate developer Carl Fisher, who envisioned a route that would bring tourists from the North through the southern states directly to a community he was developing in Florida called Miami Beach. Yet in order for the Dixie Highway to become a reality, it needed more than Fisher’s acumen for public relations. The highway came to fruition because of an entire network of supporters—from automobile industrialists and southern governors to local boosters and, most importantly, the Dixie Highway Association. There was much to recommend the road, and not simply for the purpose of tourist travel. Rural farmers, long dependent on railroads to get their goods to distant markets, were also supportive of the highway. And while many local boosters were trying to push their case through the Good Roads movement, the real “boost” came during World War I. Increased military bases and the need to move men and material to those bases was an important factor. During this same time, increased car ownership (thanks to the affordability of Henry Ford’s Model T), accompanied by the desire for good roads for tourist purposes, combined with the needs of the military to give the Dixie Highway movement the momentum it needed to succeed.
The creation of the Dixie Highway was really the creation of an entire system of roads. There were, of course, the roads that led [End Page 135] south, but there were connecting roads branching out east and west in order to accommodate rural communities that had lobbied hard not to be left out of the economic benefits promised by the highway. In this way, Ingram asserts, the Dixie Highway served as a model for the federal highway system that emerged in the 1950s.
The consistent message throughout Dixie Highway is one of local control—over the money spent, where the road was built, who built the road, and who managed the entire process. Federal funding of roads was welcome but not federal control over how the money was spent. And an important part of local control was racial control, as so many of the region’s roads were built by chain-gang labor. The making of the modern South, therefore, very often came at the expense of black men’s lives.
Dixie Highway is a solidly researched book that scholars and students of the New South will find useful to their understanding of Progressive politics, the region’s relationship with the federal government, the importance of automobiles and tourism to modernizing the South, and the ways in which racial politics shaped highway construction in the...