The Dixie Highway – America’s love affair with cars

As snowbirds speed down modern Interstates to Florida, remember that in 1923 the Dixie Highway had just reached Tampa. In three more backbreaking years the Tamiami Trail would cross the Everglades to Miami. Speed on the Dixie Highway averaged 12.9 mph in 1923, so a trip from Chicago to Miami took two weeks!

 

As the Dixie Highway pushed south, signage had local variations.

Roads versus trains in 1900s Florida

As late as 1910, good highways eluded most Americans, so people rode trains. Locally, they traveled by wagon, buggy or city streetcar. Local roads were all dirt. “Improved roads” were graded dirt, clay or gravel. And when it rained … mayhem ensued.

Counties paid farmers to grade the roads and pull the joy riders out. At Erehwon Retreat we’re glad not to be hosting guests in the 1920s!

 

The Dixie Highway was surfaced in stages.

In 1880 railroad mileage (250,000 miles) vastly exceeded navigable roads. Railroads had a monopoly! Express trains averaged 58 mph compared to the 13mph by road. 

In 1914, Carl G Fisher dreamed of connecting hundreds of short roads into interstates looping from the Mackinac MI ferry to Miami. Creating the Highway, and later a Federal highway system, created arguments about federal power and local control between many stakeholders: automobile brands, farmers, and the Good Roads movement.  In the South, prison commissions (chain gang labor) and racial control were hot topics.

At the same time, auto manufacture soared. Between 1900 and 1908, 485 automobile companies emerged, although barely half survived to 1909. Henry Ford’s Model N cost $600 in 1906 but his Model T was selling for $345 in 1916. By 1918 half the cars on the road were Model Ts. Only one thing was missing – roads that could withstand heavy rain.

The Florida map of the Dixie Highway in 1926

Fisher wanted easy travel to his Miami Beach developments. Initially his road was called the Cotton Belt route, but by 1915, when construction began, it became the Old Dixie Highway, promoting a romantic image of the Old South.

By the 1920s vacationing in Florida was growing exponentially

If you are driving on I-75 and want to track the Old Dixie Highway …

 

Florida ranks amongst the best winter destinations in the US from 1923 to today

Florida is considered one of the best winter destinations in the US. Since the turn of the century, it’s been the winter destination for many Americans. Today international travelers arrive in Florida from almost anywhere in less than 24 hours – but that wasn’t always the case.

What compelled these earlier generations to make such journeys? Many things:

  • Florida weather
  • Vacation rentals that offered grace, style and comfort
  • The unspoilt natural beauty of the Florida Keys
  • The new craze for ‘sunbathing’
  • Freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast.

In truth,  all the same things that draw today’s visitor, come to think of it.

However, the way they traveled was very different. Before the 1890s, only the rich could afford vacations. They traveled with servant entourages, staying in grand hotels constructed by the same railroad companies that transported them. It wasn’t until 1896 that the rail line actually got as far as Miami and 1912 for Key West. And  on arrival in Tampa, you transferred to steamers for west coast destinations like Sarasota and Fort Myers.

The Florida automobile vacation arrives

Beginning in 1908 the Model T (Tin Lizzie, Leaping Lena) opened travel to the common middle-class American.  The Dixie Highway S and the Lincoln Highway W brought tin canners. These people, taking their first ever vacation, packed their cars with bedding, books, clothes and canned food. Simultaneously, the short-lived St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line became the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service.

Of course travelers needed places to stay. Florida’s natural abundance of slash and long leaf pine made it an obvious building material. Today, the Heart Pine floors of Erehwon Retreat always astonish our guests.

Explorers on Tamiami Trail 1923Finally, by 1928, it was possible to drive from Tampa, via the Tamiami Trail.

By the 1950s Snowbirds were common. These affluent people could afford to rent a property for the whole winter. They often picked their vacation rental from a brochure received in the mail – the precursor of browsing online today! For them, Florida was preeminent if the best winter destinations in the US. After that things moved rapidly.

Florida vacation habits change again

1995 saw the next huge leap – Vacation Rental by Owner or VRBO. Individual vacation property owners moved into the space previously reserved for real estate firms. Personal bookings of winter vacation rentals became possible, and popular. In 2008 Airbnb disrupted the market again with the ability to book short-term stays through their site. But by 2016 many vacation rental owners were recognizing that some things had been lost along the way:

  • the personal communication between renter and property owner
  • the ability to communicate little details that turn a vacation into an unforgettable experience.

 

Ultimately, booking direct from a vacation rental owner’s website  brought back some of those personal touches. Happily it also cuts some costs!

Erehwon Retreat aims to offer the best of both worlds. In decor and ambience, we hark back to that earlier, simpler time when the economy boomed and women bobbed their hair. But today’s vacation rental pros require very different things to their forebears, so instead of offering tennis lessons or tea dances, our Florida getaway provides luxury, elegance and style. Vacation rental by owner means our visitors walk into a property that is as loved, and lovely, as a home. Our vacation rental website means we keep our visitors in touch with all the great activities that Tampa Bay and Seminole Heights has to offer, whilst ensuring that they don’t miss out on a single aspect of Florida’s amazing tourist economy from theme parks to food festivals.

Whether they come from Denver or Denmark, Austin or Australia, our visitors delight in the personal touches that make Erehwon Retreat into much more than a home from home. It’s the ideal base for a dream holiday, and the perfect place to come back to at the end of the day.

Florida Avenue – Old Dixie Highway

Florida Avenue

In 1920, Florida had a population of 968,470 people. Just five years later, the population had grown to 1,263,540. For the first time Americans had the time and money to travel to Florida to invest in real estate. For the educated and skilled working American, the 1920’s meant paid vacations, pensions, and fringe benefits unheard of during the Victorian Era. The United States also had the automobile and “tin-canners” clubs, named for the heavy metal cans which tourists carried for extra gasoline and water. On Nebraska Avenue not far from Erehwon Retreat we can still see a property built for TCT’s as well as a few properties where small cabins were built for the Roaring Twenties tourists. This influx of motorized tourism convinced leaders that new roads were needed. 

N Florida Ave. 1925 (2 yrs before Water Tower)Florida Avenue approaching Sulpher Springs 1920.

An unusually cold winter in 1925 followed by an extremely hot summer cast doubts on the state’s reputation as “heaven on earth.” The inevitable began to occur land prices had reached such a zenith that new customers failed to arrive and old customers began to sell their land. Suddenly, the only market for Florida land was for selling land. St. Petersburg, FL was the most indebted per citizen town in the United States by 1929 and Key West ranked second.

Driving to Tampa

Model Ts 3-4-2012