Dixie Highway map from 1915, from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
by Mary Morris
William Sydnor Gilbreath Sr. wanted to be remembered for his work as the driving force pushing the creation of the Dixie Highway, a paved route connecting the U.S. midwest to the south which was inspired by the east-to-west Lincoln Highway, and was the first highway to span the U.S.
He died in 1937, before his granddaughter Susan Gilbreath Lane was born, but she grew up hearing stories about his adventures from her grandmother, who recounted William’s "intoxicating recipe for eggnog, love of books, and adventurous pioneering spirit."
An avid scrapbooker, Gilbreath recorded his life for future generations with photographs, newspaper clippings, and correspondence, and those items that relate to the Dixie Highway are now viewable in the online Gilbreath Dixie Highway Scrapbooks collection.
Gilbreath first became involved in motor clubs after meeting Carl Fisher, who contributed to the planning and building of the Lincoln Highway, and they, along with others, formed the Hoosier Motor Club in Indianapolis, with Gilbreath serving as editor of the Hoosier Motor Club journal.
Around 1915, the Gibreath family was living in indianapolis when William was elected as field secretary for the newly-formed Dixie Highway Association. He left his family behind when he moved to Chattanooga and began traveling the proposed Dixie Highway route, selling the idea of a connected highway to all and sundry.
A year later, in 1916, the first phase of the Dixie Highway, running from Chicago into the south via Indianapolis, Nashville, and Atlanta, was open and celebrated. Rather than a single road, the route was primarily a network of existing roads, some widened and freshly paved.
Before the formation of the Dixie Highway, Lane said, “the route for someone driving from the midwest to Florida was to drive to the east coast and drive south along the seashore.”
As the first phase of the highway was completed, the Detroit Motor Club was looking for a manager, and after Gilbreath accepted the position in 1916 he began offering “pike tours," the first of which went to the tip of the lower Michigan peninsula—the northern terminus of the second phase of the Dixie Highway, which ran from Sault Sainte Marie through Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati, and Lexington on its route to Miami Beach, Florida.
Lane rediscovered her grandfather’s papers in the 1970s, long after they’d been donated to the Detroit Public Library and the University of Michigan after his death. Looking at his many photos and papers gave her “a connection with the handsome and flamboyant person” she had only heard and wondered about. For the rest of us, his digitized scrapbooks offer a glimpse into an era when an American roadmap was very much a work in progress.
The physical Gilbreath Dixie Highway collection is held in the Special Collections Library as part of an expansive Transportation History collection.