The plaque featuring Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which disappeared from outside the Madison County Courthouse in early November, was one of many in Western North Carolina – and the United States – marking the path of the Dixie Highway. Near identical plates, all erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with the same wording and image of Lee, also stand in Hot Springs and Henderson County. Similar markers on public lands – beside the Vance Monument in Asheville and one in far north as Franklin, Ohio – have been removed since 2017.
While much has been written of Lee, who surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. Army General Ulysses S. Grant April 9, 1865, to effectively end the Civil War, far less has been put to paper on the Dixie Highway.
Tammy Ingram’s 2014 work, “Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930,” is perhaps the defining look at the network of roadways knitted together to connect Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Chicago with Miami Beach, Florida.
The vision of Carl Fisher, an automotive industry pioneer who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Dixie Highway officially started in 1915 at a time when state and federal road and highway funding was, according to Ingram, rather meager.
“It’s pretty typical of marked trails or frontier highways, as they were called, that proliferated in the beginning of the early part of the 20th Century,” Ingram said. “But what was unique about the Dixie Highway was that it was actually completed. A lot of the others raised money for roads that were never built.”
A historian of the U.S. in the 20th Century, professor at College of Charleston and author of two books, Ingram spoke with The News-Record & Sentinel about the Dixie Highway and its significance then and now. A condensed transcript of that conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
The News-Record & Sentinel: Why was the Dixie Highway built?
Tammy Ingram: The whole point was to route wealthier tourists from the Midwest and Northeast to the real estate holdings of Midwest automobile entrepreneurs down in Florida. The South was just in the way. For the Southern business owners, journalists and ordinary people who backed the project, they really realized it could be a boon to tourism in the South. So, they were really enthusiastic about getting it completed.