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Opelika

Lauren Wiygul, Auburn University
The city of Opelika, known once as the Trading Center of East Alabama, is the county seat of Lee County. Opelika is situated at the juncture of the Piedmont Upland and East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic sections. Evolving from a small railroad town, Opelika is part of the sixth fastest-growing small metropolitan area in the nation. Opelika is governed by a mayor-council government, with a mayor and a five-member city council. Alabama governors Forrest "Fob" James and William J. Samford were both born in Opelika, as were Joe Beckwith, former Major League baseball pitcher with the 1985 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals; William Dickinson, U.S. congressman from 1965 to 1993; Roy Lee Jackson, former Major League baseball player; and Erick Strickland, former National Basketball Association player. Astronaut James Voss spent the majority of his childhood in the town, as did visual artist Roger Brown.
Early History
Records indicate that the first white settlers arrived in the area now known as Opelika in the late 1830s, after the Creek Indians ceded the land to the U.S. government in the 1832 Treaty of Cusseta. Historians suggest that the Creek Indians settled this area for its water supply from a free-flowing limestone spring and for its rich soils. The town's name means "big swamp" in the Muskoghean language spoken by the region's Native Americans
Lee County Courthouse
In 1848, the Montgomery & West Point Railroad Company completed a rail line from Montgomery to Opelika, then located in Russell County and extended one to West Point, Georgia, three years later. This second line connected Opelika with Atlanta, Georgia, and was the only direct rail route between New Orleans and the Eastern Seaboard at the time, becoming one of the main trade lines for shipping unprocessed cotton from southern plantations to the North.
Railroads spurred rapid growth in Opelika, and it officially was chartered as a town on February 9, 1854. An additional rail line was added from Opelika to Columbus, Georgia, in 1855. These rail lines were destroyed, along with depots and warehouses full of supplies for Confederate forces defending Atlanta, when Union general Lovell Rousseau led a raid into east-central Alabama in mid-July 1864. After the Civil War ended, the city was in desperate need of rebuilding. The Alabama State Legislature created a new county out of parts of Macon, Russell, Chambers, and Tallapoosa counties, naming it after Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In 1866, citizens of the new Lee County voted Opelika as the new county seat. The town's first courthouse, replaced in 1897 with the present courthouse, was designed by renowned African American builder Horace King.
In 1868, an accidental fire destroyed most of Opelika's business district, catapulting Opelika into a chaotic period. The municipal government was unsuccessful in trying to fix the financial problems and political infighting that arose after Reconstruction ended in 1870. Finally, Gov. Edward O'Neal had to deploy the state militia to Opelika in order to restore order.
Economic Development
Opelika expanded in the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents built an opera house and funded the installation of brick streets. In 1896, Opelika became one of 10 experimental sites for the postal service's new rural free delivery program. In 1900, local investors established the
Pepperell Mill in Opelika, ca. 1933
Opelika Cotton Mill as the first plant in the city, employing 125 workers. The mill stayed in business until the close of the twentieth century and is best known today, along with its surrounding mill village and the Golden Cherry Motel, as filming locations for the 1979 film Norma Rae. In 1914, a training school for nurses was established at the local hospital, operating for 18 years before being closed in 1931. By the 1920s, Opelika had 24 daily passenger trains stopping in the town. In 1925, the Pepperell Manufacturing Company (later WestPoint Home) was established and flourished until its closing in 2006. No textile mills remain open in the city.
During World War II, the U.S. Army constructed a prisoner-of-war camp in Opelika. Variously called Camp Opelika, the Opelika Internment Camp, and Opelika PW Camp, the facility officially opened on December 12, 1942, and eventually housed more than 2,700 prisoners; it closed on December 8, 1945. From 1950 to 1975, the major industries that funded Opelika's economy were linen, magnetic tape at a factory founded by John Herbert Orr, auto tires, sheet-metal and iron-fabricating plants, bottling
East Alabama Medical Center
companies, bakeries, and publishing, textile, and hospital facilities. In 1963, Uniroyal built a tire plant in the city, and Diversified Products, an exercise-equipment manufacturer founded in part by future governor Fob James, opened a facility. James's company closed in 1989 and the tire plant, under the ownership of Michelin USA, closed in October 2009. In 2007, new industry accounted for almost 1,500 jobs and more than $321 million in capital investment. The city's most recent retail development, Tiger Town, was completed in 2005. With more than 750,000 square feet of retail shopping, Tiger Town is the largest retail center in East Alabama.
Demographics
Darden House in Opelika
According to the 2010 Census, the population of the city of Opelika was 26,477. Of that number, 50.6 percent reported themselves as white, 43.5 percent as African American, 4.4 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 1.7 percent as Asian, and 0.3 percent as Native American. The median family income is $37,768, the median household income is $33,397, and the per capita income is $22,861.
Employment
The workforce in present-day Opelika is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (26.6 percent)
· Manufacturing (14.2 percent)
· Retail trade (12.6 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (10.3   percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste   management services (8.5 percent)
· Construction (6.8 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (3.8 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (5.1 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (4.5 percent)
· Public administration (4.2 percent)
· Wholesale trade (2.0 percent)
· Information (1.2 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.4 percent)
Education
Opelika is home to a branch of Southern Union State Community College, a two-year community and technical college offering academic, industrial, and health-sciences training. The campus currently employs 72 full-time and 137 part-time staff. The Opelika City School system enrolls approximately 4,500 students and employs approximately 285 teachers on nine campuses. Opelika has three primary schools with grades K-2; three intermediate schools with grades 3-5; Opelika Middle School with grades 6-8; Opelika High School with grades 9-12; and the Opelika Learning Center.
Transportation
Opelika is served by three main routes: U.S. 29/I-85, which runs southeast-northwest along the southern end of the city; U.S. 280, which runs north-south; and U.S. 431, which runs north on the eastern edge of the city. Norfolk Southern Corporation and Georgia Southwestern Railroad operate the railroad traffic through Opelika.
Events and Places of Interest
Grand National Golf Course in Opelika
The Grand National Golf Course, part of Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, is located in Opelika and is the host of the annual PGA Barbasol Championship. The Grand National, listed in the top ten of Golf Digest's "America's Top 50 Affordable Golf Courses," also hosts a conference center and resort hotel. Opelika also hosts the annual Dogwood and Azalea Trail and the Victorian Front Porch Christmas Tour, and is home to the Museum of East Alabama and Historic Downtown Opelika, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Opelika Municipal Park offers visitors rides on a miniature train, an annual concert series, and the Salem-Shotwell Covered Bridge, which is a restored section of a historic structure that once spanned Wacoochee Creek in Salem, Lee County.
Published:  May 12, 2009   |   Last updated:  March 28, 2017