A Day Along Dixie Highway
by Charles Peckman
It is 7:30 in the morning, and the engine of my grandpa’s 1929 Ford Model A roars to life. The sky is dark yet auspicious, and we are armed with a brown cooler full of water bottles and cans of Pepsi – it is the Saturday before Father’s Day, after all, which means it is time for Drivin’ the Dixie.
This annual event, which I have been participating in for as long as I can remember, takes attendees along Dixie Highway, which was first planned in 1914 to connect the Midwest to the South. Although larger interstates have been constructed since then, Dixie still holds a special place in the hearts of the small Illinois towns that were fabricated along the 5,000 mile stretch of asphalt.
If you were to stumble upon the caravan of Drivin’ the Dixie participants, you would think you had traveled back in time – aside from my grandpa’s ‘29 Model A, various characters showed up in a diverse sampling of cars from the last century; to your left, a beautifully-restored 1957 Chevy, to your right, a bright red 1977 Corvette. Although I do not consider myself an especially masculine person, there is something about the sight of vintage cars that excites me, unlocking my inner ‘little boy’ as I ogle at the pristine paint jobs and fuzzy dice hanging in the window.
We began our day in Momence, Illinois, a sleepy 3,000-person town, 55 miles south of Chicago. It was at a minute, brick community center where we received our itinerary for the day, along with a small ‘swag bag:’ brochures, a magnet, and two bright yellow pencils. As my brother and I stuffed our faces with free, homemade donuts, my grandpa began conversing with some of his friends. There was Martin, an older man wearing a yellow jacket and a ‘Korea Veteran’ hat, and Jim Wright, a member of my grandpa’s car club and author of books about Dixie Highway.
In previous years, Drivin’ the Dixie attendance has ranged from 80-120 cars, give-or-take a few stragglers who either show up late or break down throughout the day. This year, however, 56 cars registered. “It’s sad to see the numbers dwindle,” my grandpa said, while he looked out at the desolate stretch of land we were driving on. Despite the dip in attendance, which my grandpa attributes to vintage car enthusiasts getting older or dying and the inclement weather, the three of us still enjoyed every stop.
These ‘points of interest,’ as they are called, included the Beecher Train Depot, a now-defunct train station that serves as a museum, and Flossmoor Family Auto Repair, a family-owned auto body shop where older men clad in Hawaiian shirts discussed their latest restorations. Perhaps more interesting than any scheduled point of interest, however, was hearing about my grandpa’s history of the area.
After all, he was born and raised in this area. As we drove along Dixie, he pointed at a dilapidated, one-story structure: “that used to be a Studebaker dealership, and that’s where my dad bought all of his cars.” This brand, I later learned, was completely manufactured in the U.S. and closed its doors in the 1960s. To our left, there was a large abandoned building that somewhat resembled Arkham Asylum (the fictional hospital from Batman). “That used to be a shopping mall with a huge J. C. Penney,” my grandpa said. “They filmed part of The Blues Brothers there in the late ‘70s.”
Although my grandpa admitted it is, for lack of a better word, depressing to see these sites reduced to piles of rubble, not all of the unofficial points of interest were negative: in Homewood, we drove by the first house my parents bought together in the early ‘90s, and in the same town we toured a former funeral home-turned science center, which boasted interactive exhibits and a ‘learning laboratory’ stocked with computers and a small gift shop with science-themed t-shirts.
By the time we reached our final stop, Blue Island, a steady (albeit light) stream of rain coated the forest green exterior of our car. Once we parked and momentarily conversed with Martin, we made our way to a large field. Scattered on the matted, wet grass were men clad in anachronistic clothing; this, I gleaned, was a ‘vintage baseball game.’
Without mitts, helmets, or any of the modern amenities now commonplace in ‘America’s Pastime,’ the players in the vintage baseball league play according to the rules from 1858; the pitcher, for example, is referred to as the hurler. The catcher is the backstop, and the batter is the striker. Standing beneath a hastily-constructed tent with my brother, we watched the Brewmasters face the Grinders (in case you were wondering, the Brewmasters won 14-8).
With the 18th annual Drivin’ the Dixie under our belts, we drove along barren roads towards my grandpa’s house – along the way, we passed miles of corn and soybean fields and an elderly man smoking a cigarette outside of a Dollar General. As the conversation faded and the only sound was the comforting roar of the engine, I began thinking about the 68th annual Drivin’ the Dixie (that is, if a. Dixie Highway is still around and b. if the event is still running, no pun intended).
Although admittedly trite, I imagined driving with my grandkids along this stretch of Dixie Highway. Even though the ‘vintage’ car I would probably be driving (in this possible future) would most likely be a 2008 Prius as opposed to a 1929 Model A, I thought about the familiar sites I pass on a daily basis and take for granted. The thrift store where I buy records, the brewery where my family has enjoyed countless dinners, and the coffee shop where I spend hours laughing – and crying – with close friends.
Thinking about the future of these places – and the memories housed within them – can lead to hours of postulating and emotions ranging from wonder to intense melancholy. Regardless of the fate of these structures, however, I know their memory will stay alive in the minds of those who inhabited them.
After all – along Dixie Highway, a dilapidated brick structure cannot be taken at face value; at one point in time, my great-grandpa was receiving the keys to a brand-new Studebaker.