Looking around Auburn University people notice construction and new apartment complexes popping up everyday. Approximately 20 minutes down the road in Opelika, Alabama, members of the community see a new appreciation for their small, railroad town.
White settlers started to migrate to the area in 1830, but the town was not officially chartered until 1854. At this point in history, railroad tracks were being placed throughout the nation, and Opelika worked to build a connection from their location to the rest of the world. The 19th century was focused on building and rebuilding, but by the 20th century, the town had gained several new features, including a cotton mill, a training school for nurses and the Pepperell Manufacturing Company.
One larger development of Opelika was the Uniroyal Tire Company. The specific plant came to Opelika in 1963, but was closed in 2009 due to an overall loss of demand, according to an article by WTVM in April 2009.
Standing in a shop crowded with antiques, Roland Lee, the owner of Roland’s Thift Store, stopped sweeping the floor to reflect on the many jobs he’s worked in Opelika, including his job at Uniroyal.
“I’ve been here a long time,” Lee said. “I worked at a tire plant for 27 years. I’ve worked in the thrift store for 14 years. I was the store manager of the Salvation Army for three years. It’s been a long time.”
Since he has been in the town so long, Roland now holds a great appreciation for the people he has met and the time he has spent, and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, he said.
“80-year-old man, good retirement, good Social Security, good insurance, just enjoying working,” Lee said. “I have a lot of friends and Facebook, and I just enjoy people. I also think it’s a safe town, and we don’t have much problems around here. Everyone seems to work together nice.”
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Toward the end of the 20th century, Opelika began to see an increase in non-agricultural employment, which is what mainly dominated the area since the creation of the town. One addition Opelika saw was in the medical field with East Alabama Medical Center, which saw its formation in the mid-1900s. In addition to EAMC, the first internal medical practice was established in Opelika in 1969 in order to provide further medical care to the people of the community.
The creation of this internal medical practice not only impacted people in need, but also Barbara Patton and her husband when it brought them to Opelika for his career in 1973.
Barbara looked around her shop, Heritage Gifts & Gourmet, as she attempted to express her story of living in Opelika.
“We bought a house on 7th Avenue and had a bed-and-breakfast,” Patton said. “We had a friend who owned the gift shop, and when she retired we took the gift shop. We were there for ten years, we sold the bed-and-breakfast, and they didn’t want the gift shop, so we took it and moved it downtown.”
The gift shop has been at its location on S. 8th St. since 2004, where Patton has watched the different people and businesses come and go.
“It’s a small town with a lot of big-town amenities,” she said. “We have a lot of things that people can get involved in that don’t cost a lot of money. The footprint of Opelika has changed a lot though. Tiger Town came in back in 2005—we have a lot of new industries, but a lot also left, so we have a balance.”
What especially makes Opelika stand out to her, are the people in the community who she gets to interact with who have a fire inside of them for making Opelika a better place, Patton said.
“Well, I love the people,” Patton said. “I love the fact that people care about their community, that they’re involved and that they have different interests.”
Walking outside of Heritage, there is a vintage clothing store just a few steps away. Sitting behind the counter is Usse Verma—a small woman surrounded by large, bright clothes from the ‘80s. She is a part owner of New York Fashions, along with her husband. The couple moved to Opelika in 1987 and never looked back, she said.
“My husband was driving around from North Carolina, and he found this place,” Verma said. “It’s like a family here. I know everybody and my customers know me very well, so I enjoy it. I enjoy my business.”
Verma has watched Opelika grow into an amazing town that she is proud to be from, she said.
“Opelika has changed so much,” she said. “There are so many restaurants, and people enjoy it. It’s also a lot safer and the parking lot is always full. It’s a very peaceful downtown, and people really enjoy it.”
In the center of downtown sits a large fountain with benches placed around the perimeter for people to sit and enjoy the view. Colored leaves have fallen off the trees, and, as people walk uphill towards First Baptist Church Opelika, they hear the crunch of the leaves below their feet. Almost Anything, a vintage store located on S. 9th St., sits on top of the hill. Inside the shop, Ben Cash stood behind the counter among the comic books, vinyl records and other various knick knacks.
Since he moved to the city, Cash said that Opelika has welcomed him more so than anywhere else he has been.
“Nobody wanted to deal with us in Auburn; we were the odd man out,” he said. “But here, you know, every other business owner when we got up here came to come see us. They came to get excited about it. The owner has asked to be involved with so many events, even if they aren’t in our niche.”
Living in Auburn and working in Opelika, Cash has seen and experienced both environments. Though Auburn provides a vibrance and energy from the students, Opelika has a community that Cash wouldn’t trade for anything, he said.
“I feel like Auburn haunts everything for football and sports, but Opelika picks up everything else,” Cash said. “They’re way more personable, and everyone is all in for Opelika. They’re more excited about Opelika than any place I’ve ever been. There’s very little drawback to this town.”
Without any hesitation, Cash brought up how the businesses surrounding each other in the historic downtown district have all become like a family.
“There’s very little competition between two businesses,” he said. “Even if you have two of the same kind of shops, which we do, they’re all incredibly friendly. Everyone stays in their own circle, but no one is afraid of any one group of people.”
On the other side of downtown, entering the historic district, sits the Lewis Cooper Jr. Memorial Library. The main floor of the building is open and filled with rows of bookshelves. Upstairs in the quiet reading area, Library Director Rosanna McGinnis sat at a table cutting out pieces of paper for a project she was working on.
“Don’t mind me, I’ll have to work while I talk,” she said.
McGinnis moved to Opelika in 2016 to take the position in which she currently works, but the city has already had an impact on her, she said.
“I feel like I moved here at the best time,” McGinnis said. “Things are up and coming in Opelika; we’re making a lot of ‘Best of Small Cities’ lists—one just came out this past weekend.”
Before coming to Opelika, McGinnis lived in Birmingham, so she was a little cautious when moving to a smaller city like Opelika.
“I was hesitant to move here, I mean the job was a great opportunity, but I loved living in Birmingham, and I loved how many things there were to do,” she said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised on how many things there are to do in the area.”
After learning more about the city and its people, McGinnis discovered that she loved the atmosphere and vibrance that a small, up-and-coming city radiated, she said.
“I think there are a lot of people in Opelika who want Opelika to be better and are willing to stay and do the work to help the city grow and change,” she said. “I don’t think you see that in Birmingham or larger cities. People want to complain about things, but they don’t actually want to do the work. I like living in a place where people are passionate enough about their personal passion projects to do the work to make them happen.”
In 1854, success for the city of Opelika was just a goal of the early settlers that first chartered the town. Now labeled by Southern Living Magazine as one of the South’s best small towns, this small railroad town has become a community beloved by many of the people who comprise it.
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