Located in the heart of the historic district in Opelika, Lee County, the Museum of East Alabama houses more than 5,000 artifacts relating to the rural, business, and architectural heritage of Chambers, Lee, Macon, Tallapoosa and Russell counties. Founders Eleanor and John T. Harris led the effort to establish the museum in Opelika, where the couple spent their summers. The Harrises had earlier worked to build a museum in McCook, Nebraska, Eleanor's hometown where the Harris family spent winters. Appeals in local papers for donations resulted in a large number of items. The couple installed them in an old hardware store that had been given rent free for three years by Andrew Story, Sr. Yetta Samford then donated the building next door, resulting in approximately 10,000 square feet of display and storage space. The museum opened in August 1989 and completed the first phase of a major $100,000 renovation in the summer of 2010; changes include the addition of interactive displays and new lighting. The museum welcomes more than 2,000 visitors a year.
All of the permanent exhibits in the Museum of East Alabama contain artifacts donated by local citizens or by people with connections to the area, including space shuttle memorabilia donated by Opelika native and NASA astronaut Jim Voss. As part of the renovation, the museum's artifacts have been divided into six collections to better tell the story of the region. The exhibits focus on homelife, work, military conflict, transportation, leisure activities, and people and generally chronicle the many societal changes that took place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in east Alabama. This exhibit concept was developed by students in the Department of Industrial Design at Auburn University under the direction of Professor Bret Smith and makes use of the current space with separate display areas for each collection.
The East Alabama at Home exhibit displays items from daily life such as home furnishings, housewares, and musical instruments. Items of interest include a 1924 General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator in operable condition. When this exhibit's renovation is complete, these items will be displayed by era, beginning with a pioneer kitchen.
East Alabama at Work is the first phase of the renovation to be completed. It highlights agriculture, construction, and other industries that developed in east Alabama and includes displays focusing on John Herbert Orr/Ampex, Uni-Royal/B.F. Goodrich, Diversified Products, and Medical/East Alabama Medical Center. The history of textile manufacturer Pepperell Mills and its Opelika mill town, Pepperell Village, is documented in an exhibit that includes a loom, a cotton scale, and a reconstructed section of the actual Pepperell Station Post Office. The post office opens one day a year during Opelika's annual Christmas in a Railroad Town celebration. Also featured in this exhibit is one of two German tape recorders (the other is in the Smithsonian) captured during World War II by John Herbert Orr, an Army intelligence officer from Opelika. This tape recorder used magnetic tape, a ground-breaking technology that began the modern recording industry and that Orr used to establish a factory in Opelika.
East Alabama at War contains artifacts such as guns and uniforms from the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The museum houses the only collection of artifacts from Camp Opelika, a prison-of-war camp for captured German soldiers located in the city's outskirts during World War II. The exhibit includes the Camp's search light as well as items that were handcrafted by the prisoners such as paintings and carved wooden items.
East Alabama On the Go shows how transportation has changed through the years. A fully operational, hand-built model steam locomotive and a collection of Alabama covered bridges that are built precisely to scale are among the exhibits. This exhibit area also houses the first item donated to the museum: a restored carriage dating from 1920.
East Alabama at Play includes toys, cameras, and projectors, the world's largest collection of Roanoke dolls, also known as the Alabama Indestructible Dolls (designed by Ella Smith from Roanoke, Randolph County), and dolls from around the world. The People of East Alabama exhibit displays Native American artifacts that include a prehistoric cypress dugout canoe that was donated anonymously by a Lee County resident. Memorabilia donated by famous east Alabamians include items from former Governor Fob James, Alabama Supreme Court Justice C. C. "Bo" Torbert, professional baseball players Billy Hitchcock and Roy Lee Jackson, football and baseball star Bo Jackson, astronaut Jim Voss, and General Robert Lee Bullard.