It was a day of ceremony and celebration, the day in 1915 that the first brick was laid on the Dixie Highway in Martinsville, Indiana.
Last year I explored the old Dixie Highway in southern Indiana. The Dixie Highway was a 1910s and 1920s network of roads that connected the Midwest to the South, running from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan to Miami, Florida. In a day where good roads were not a given, the Dixie was formed to pave the way, literally, to bring tourists to the South. The highway was laid mostly over existing roads, many of which were unimproved; i.e., dirt. The Dixie Highway Association wanted to see the entire network improved for swift, sure travel.
Martinsville, a town about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis, really embraced the Dixie and was first to improve it. Thanks to a local brick-making industry, in 1915 Martinsville bricked a portion of the Dixie, connecting it from the outskirts of town to already-paved city streets. The first brick was laid on September 15 amid great fanfare. A holiday was declared in Martinsville and school was canceled for the day. A young woman named Marguerite Mars was named “Dixie Queen” and rode on a float in a parade honoring the day and the highway. Carl Fisher, father of the Dixie Highway, traveled to Indianapolis with Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston, who placed the first brick.
I’m sure it took quite some time to complete the job. Somebody came back when it was done to photograph the road southbound from where the bricks began.
If you’d like to know more about the day the Dixie was bricked in Martinsville, click this link, which will take you to a Google Books search with many great links, from which I learned all I’ve shared here.
Governor Ralston spoke to assembled Martinsvillians on that day in 1915, saying that a hundred years hence they would look back on that day with gratitude and pride. This was doomed prophecy. Gov. Ralston could not have predicted then how prolifically roads would be built and improved. 98 years later, if those bricks still exist they are buried under layers of asphalt along some old alignment of what became Indiana State Road 37. Today, SR 37 is a heavily traveled four-lane divided highway that bypasses Martinsville; it will become I-69 in the coming years. It seems unlikely that anyone in Martinsville remembers the old brick road that once led to town, and I’ll bet few in Martinsville have ever heard of the Dixie Highway.
But last year while researching the Dixie Highway to write about it here, I discovered a short segment of brick road still in use in Martinsville. I had the opportunity to pass through that town recently, so I stopped to look the old road over.
This road is on Martinsville’s northwest side, near where State Road 39 crosses the west fork of the White River. It’s called Bob Gay Parkway today. You can drive only on the short section I marked with green arrowheads, even though Google Maps shows it extending beyond that point.
It seems reasonable to guess that these bricks were placed in the same timeframe as the Dixie Highway bricks. It is also reasonable to guess that when the Indiana State Highway Commission laid out State Road 39, it followed these bricks until the more modern road was built just to the south.
Here’s where the old brick road fades away, near the leftmost green arrowhead in the map excerpt above. As you follow current SR 39 toward the river, you can see bits and pieces of the old brick road.
This segment is about 500 feet long. It gets little traffic; it appears to only provide access to the Morgan County Jail. Maybe that’s helped these bricks stay in such good shape. But brick roads wear like iron anyway.
As you can see, this road is not up to the task of modern highway travel. It’s narrow, at only probably 16 feet wide. Can you imagine encountering an oncoming semi at 55 miles per hour on a road like this? If only old Governor Ralston could see this in context now.
A short brick section of the Dixie remains in western Indiana. See it here.
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Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey