The procession of travelers amazed farmers and residents along the old Dixie Highway in rural Tennessee during the 1930s.
They came walking, hitch-hiking, biking, on horseback and wagons and in dusty automobiles. All were driven by need. Things had to be better a little further down the road. It couldn’t be worse than where they started.
Humanity was on the move. The travelers had heard rumors of jobs, decent wages, places where a man could feed his hungry family. Some were headed to Florida, not knowing that the Great Depression had sunk claws in the “Sunshine State” like the rest of the nation.
Others were headed north to Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Cleveland. All had one thing in common. They traveled the Dixie Highway, the route of an economic migration based on hope that the grass was greener just over the hill or around the bend.
But there was little milk and honey to be found. Just more hard times. So what did these migrants do? Many turned around and trekked another direction. Beaten-down men, women, children and the elderly. Factory workers with no jobs. Farmers who’d lost their land. Entire families with little or no resources.
Some would turn westward and become part of a larger movement, the Dust Bowl migration. Uprooted farm and small town families like those immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” headed to California and Oregon.
Migrants traveling the Dixie Highway made a lifelong impression on a youngster who viewed them from the window of his family’s house.
“I remember watching them pass,” says the Tennessean who grew up on a farm that fronted part of the Dixie Highway. “I remember how sad many of them looked.”
The Dixie Highway was actually a network of routes connecting the states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to Florida. Construction started in the late-1900s.
Road surfaces included pavement (usually in larger cities), brick, and hard-packed gravel. This meant the Dixie Highway remained passable in conditions that brought travel to a standstill on the rutted dirt roads infamous in the rural South.
The Dixie Highway was a progenitor of the modern interstate system. Tennessee became the nexus. Two routes ran through the state. One connected Springfield to Chattanooga; the other dropped down to Knoxville, splitting between Chattanooga and North Carolina.
Economic refugees during the Great Depression used the highway to pursue the dream of a brighter future. Their numbers are unknown, but few of them immediately found better circumstances. In fact, travails on the road were sometimes worse than if they had stayed put.
At night, they stopped to camp and share meager provisions. They asked for food at houses and farms along the way. Some even begged.
Tennesseans, no strangers to hard times, opened their doors and kitchens.
“Daddy always killed four or five big hogs in the winter. There was plenty of smoked pork. We had a big garden, too, so there was lots of canned beans, kraut and taters,” says the retired farmer who was a boy in the early 1930s.
“I was just a big kid, but I remember” hungry people, stopping for handouts.
“Mamma made cornbread with corn we ground at the grist mill. She would feed whoever came to our door, whoever was headed down the road, black or white.”
Today, he lives on the same land and in the same house. His great-grandchildren mark the seventh generation with a connection to the land. They might never appreciate the fact that, more than 80 years ago, he had a ring-side seat to history.
A greater focus on the Dixie Highway’s importance was due to the migration of southern African-Americans to northern urban areas during the first half of the 20th Century. This movement resulted in the relocation of six million people over a period of several decades.
Depression-era migrations were part of this. Economic refugees of all races streamed through Tennessee, passing farms from Jellico to Dayton, Murfreesboro to Monteagle, on their quest for a better life.
“I will always remember folks coming to the door with hungry children. Mama never turned them away as long as we had food to spare. A lot of our neighbors did the same thing,” says the retired farmer.
“It was the right thing to do.”