A hundred-year-old brick road

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.

Old brick road

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.

Imagery © 2013 Google. Map data © 2013 Google.
Imagery © 2013 Google. Map data © 2013 Google.

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.

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.

Old brick road

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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19 responses to “A hundred-year-old brick road”

  1. Dani Avatar

    Imagine the time and back-breaking effort it took to lay a brick road. Wow.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A couple weeks ago I posted some photos here I found taken in 1925 or so of a crew laying a brick road. Every brick was laid by hand. Wow is right.

  2. Wally-Tonya Czyz Avatar

    It’s sad how much history fades away only to become forgotten. Thank you for bringing some back to life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s amazing how much is left, in little bits and pieces like this. I never used to see it but I’ve become attuned to it now.

  3. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    You see a ton of the old bricks sticking thru the pavement down here, it seems History sometimes is trying to take back a little bit of our town.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, lots of brick streets are buried under asphalt. It’s a common trick!

  4. pesoto74 Avatar

    Some great finds. I remember my uncle telling me that as a young man he saw brick being laid for Route 36(at the time the Coast to Coast Highway). I was amazed that such a long highway was made with brick. Before that I had thought it had only been used in a town. These roads must have kept the brick factories humming.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Consider how long the road had to be closed for the construction! They had to pour a concrete pad and let it cure, and then lay the bricks one by one, by hand.

  5. Madelaine Avatar

    VERY cool!!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  6. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    I’ve never really understood brick roads. Wouldn’t they be extremely labour-intensive? Do they have much of an edge over well-kept gravel roads?

    1. Wally-Tonya Czyz Avatar

      I hate gravel roads, too much dust, you need to roll up the windows and they always have rumbles in them from heavy trucks and people driving over them too fast. Bricks are classic!

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I’m told that bricks are hard to plow the snow off of, and that they are slipperier when wet than asphalt. So maybe that’s why they aren’t used now.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      The 1910s and 1920s was a time of experimentation in making hard roads, and brick was tried. Gravel’s great until it washes out; brick doesn’t wash out. Yes, they were incredibly labor intensive, but as you can see they really lasted.

  7. Carole Avatar

    I grew up in an old section of town with brick streets. I loved them with their rattle-like hum as you drove over them and the coolness they provided in the summer (as evidenced by the dogs that would lay on them on hot summer days). The brick streets gave our neighborhood a comfort of stability, togetherness, and the honor that we were living in a special place that deserved a certain reverence. But, brick roads were a time in history and they certainly don’t meet the needs of travel today.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I know those brick streets. I’ve driven a lot of old brick roads as I’ve explored, and I can say that those brick streets are the rumbliest I’ve ever experienced.

  8. Cleveland Avatar

    Two roads besides the one to the jail still exist in Martinsville, Indiana. The one past the jail doesn’t ( I have been trying to keep those two fairly well kept but out of public eye.

  9. Cleveland Avatar

    Mis -commented. I want them out of public eye, but well kept. Not a tourist attraction is what I mean.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Well, thanks for preserving them. Would be nice to see them though!

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