With my deadline approaching, I had no idea what I was going to write about this week.
My mind has been somewhat preoccupied as I’m currently on day 11 of my two week annual training requirement for the Alabama National Guard here at Fort McClellan.
I had no idea, that is, until my newsfeed on Facebook lit up, somewhat literally, with pictures and the news that West Point Pepperell Mill had burst into flames.
Although it’d been closed for several years and much of it was currently being demolished, I still referred to it as the “new mill” while referring to the older mill further up 1st Avenue as the “old mill.”
Apparently, the plan was to convert a portion of the “new mill” to condos. Sadly, that is no longer an option.
It’s truly the end of an era.
I’m old enough to remember the glory days of the mills in Opelika.
Okay, I can’t say with great certainty that what I remember is considered to be their heyday, but I can assure you that no one wanted to get caught up in the mill traffic on “the four lane” at shift change.
To the locals, it was every bit as congested as any major highway in America.
I remember the filming of “Norma Rae” at the “old mill.” The soon to be Academy Award winning actress Sally Field was dating Burt Reynolds at the time, and I recall seeing a black Trans-Am, driven by “the bandit” no doubt, parked on location several times during its filming. Well, that’s what I told my friends at school anyway.
Generations of Opelikians were employed by the mills over the years. They worked very hard in less than ideal conditions to make ends meet just to provide for their families.
I want to say that some people actually worked there for up to 50 years. I can’t even imagine that.
I worked at Kroger during the latter days of the “old mill.” I remember many of the hairnet clad employees coming in to get their snacks before their shifts and their adult beverages afterwards. I saw many of them just about every day. They worked hard, and I had a great deal of respect for each of them.
Some of my best friends’ parents and grandparents worked at these mills, but mine didn’t. My granddad worked at the mill in Dadeville for a number of years. It’s closed, too, as are most mills in the area.
My mother worked at MNC Corporation, which was a local company that made boxes. She worked there for roughly 37 years. It shut down in 2011.
Many of my friends’ parents worked at places such as Uniroyal, Ampex, and Diversified Products. When I was a kid, I thought they were rich. They might’ve gotten paid a little bit more than some of the other plants, but I’d hardly consider any of them rich.
They did, however, get perks such as free sets of tires at Uniroyal and free audio and video tapes at Ampex. At least that’s what we poor folks heard through the grapevine.
I can’t recall whether DP provided free weights and exercise equipment to their employees or not.
In my opinion, Uniroyal was the king of local industry for a variety of reasons but mostly because of the “Uniroyal store.”
Where else could employees purchase items such as name brand clothing and shoes at discount prices?
But, in the end, even the king would fall. Sadly, every plant mentioned in this article has since shut down.
While most of the properties still stand, Ampex lies in rubble and the new mill smolders.
We can only hope that those properties that remain will one day be put to good use.
Some see the mill’s fiery demise as the coup de gras for an iconic building; however, others see it as an iconic building going out with flare in a dramatic blaze of glory.
So thanks for everything, “new mill.” Sure, you might have put the “Stink” in “Stink Creek,” but more importantly, you were a provider who provided so much to so many for so long.
Opelika would not be the town we all know and love today without you and your valuable contributions to our community.
Jody Fuller is a comic, a speaker, and a soldier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, please visit www.jodyfuller.com.