Opelika in the 1950s

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Submitted photo The Montgomery Fair, located at the corner of Ave. B and S. 8th St., was East Alabama’s largest department store. It was a fixture in downtown Opelika until the early 1970s when it became Gayfer’s and a few years later it departed downtown for the mall. At some point in there Gayfer’s became Dillard’s.

Grabbing industry’s attention

Submitted photo The Montgomery Fair, located at the corner of Ave. B and S. 8th St., was East Alabama’s largest department store. It was a fixture in downtown Opelika until the early 1970s when it became Gayfer’s and a few years later it departed downtown for the mall. At some point in there Gayfer’s became Dillard’s.
Submitted photo
The Montgomery Fair, located at the corner of Ave. B and S. 8th St., was East Alabama’s largest department store. It was a fixture in downtown Opelika until the early 1970s when it became Gayfer’s and a few years later it departed downtown for the mall. At some point in there Gayfer’s became Dillard’s.

By Fred Woods
Editor

The 1950s may have  brought the Korean War to the world stage but it brought the chance for Opelika to unite as a community.
In the late 1940s Opelikans were using a 25-bed hospital facility located at the corner of 9th St. and 3rd Ave. Then US Senator Lister Hill of Alabama co-sponsored the Hill-Burton Act that provided  matching federal funds for communities seeking to build hospitals. Winston Smith T (Dozier’s grandfather) and other concerned citizens applied for and received federal Hill-Burton funding for a Lee County Hospital.
A large portion of the required local match was provide by the Pepperell Manufacturing Company who also donated the land for the hospital which was dedicated in Feb., 1952, with Sen. Hill as the featured speaker. Lee County Hospital, overseen by a nine-member board chaired by Winston Smith T, opened with 81 beds, 70 employees and 13 doctors. The beloved doctor Byron S. Bruce was the first Chief of Staff. The first patient was Mrs. Iva Dean Sharpe whose baby girl, Deanna, was delivered by Dr. James Walker.
Lee County Hospital, on Pepperell Parkway, of course later became EAMC and has now grown into a 389-bed facility, winning many, many awards for medical excellence.
Housing, stymied by the lack of materials in the 1940s became a growth industry. Public housing was also added. In 1949 the Opelika Housing Authority was established. The authority applied for, and received, federal funding for low-income public housing and, in 1951, built Hardaway Homes, a 76-unit project. In 1952, a 74-unit public housing project called Pleasant Drive Homes was completed.
Opelika residents also had their first public facility for outdoor fun when Municipal Park was opened in 1951 with 20 acres for family recreation. The park featured a monkey cage with a dozen or so very active monkeys. The monkeys, probably not a very well thought-out addition from both the monkeys’ as well as the spectators’ points of view, persisted for several years before being phased out. Old timers’, and some newer residents, however, still refer to the park as “Monkey Park.”
In 1952, Opelika’s City Library, under the leadership of long-time city librarian Mrs Bertha Miller moved from the tiny quarters in the little building beside First United Methodist Church to a larger room in the Municipal Building.
Opelika celebrated its 100th birthday in 1954. The actual birthday was Feb. 9, 1954, but the city officially celebrated with a gigantic Centennial Celebration the week of Sept. 5 – 11. The celebration received favorable publicity throughout the state of Alabama and much of west Georgia.
Many residents, and visitors as well, took part in the festivities. The centennial parade had 14 bands, 20 floats and attracted nearly 20,000 spectators, considerably more than Opelika’s estimated 13,600 citizens.
The “Brothers of the Brush” organization “enticed” about 2,000 men to grow beards to promote the celebration. Brothers of the Brush was the counterpart to the female “Sisters of the Swish” organization in which ladies wore antebellum-type dresses to promote the celebration.
Opelika’s Centennial Queen, Miss Barbara Glenn, now Mrs. Barbara Glenn Farish, was presented at the Queen’s Ball. Tickets were $1.00 for advanced purchases or $1.25 at the door. A centennial pageant, “Panorama of Progress,” was staged each night, Monday through Saturday. With a cast of 400 people, it portrayed Opelika’s history. Opelikans 80 years of age or older, who had lived most of their lives in Opelika were given special recognition.
In the spring, Northside Elementary School and Opelika Junior High put on a pageant called “The First Century,” tracing Opelika’s first 100 years. First graders portrayed the songs and dances of the Creek Indians. Second graders were the early European settlers, acting out such events as the first store, the first church (old Lebanon which grew into First United Methodist Church), and the first train.
Third and fourth graders portrayed the era of the War Between the States, while fifth and sixth graders showed such events as the two world wars, Pearl Harbor and Opelika’s first fire department. The junior high students acted out scenes from “Opelika Today,” the city as it was in 1954.
Opelika mayor Ealon Lambert said, “Never before has such mass cooperation been seen by old-timers as is now being given by all citizens, civic organizations, women’s clubs and business organizations.”
The city of Opelika continued to grow. According to a 1957 Chamber of Commerce survey, existing businesses added more than $1 million investment and 327 additional jobs in 1956 alone. In early 1957 Opelika had about 3,500 industrial workers employed by 14 large and small industries. Of these 14, four had come in 1956.
A $1 million school building program began in early 1957. This included a new high school on the north side of town and a new grammar school for southside.
Lee County Hospital was five years old and had admitted just under 16,000 patients. Dr. Millard Samford had succeeded Dr. Byron Bruce as Chief of Staff and Will Stewart was hospital administrator. Already plans were underway for a 50-bed expansion.
In March, 1957, the Red Cross Fund Drive got underway with FUMC’s Rev. Si Mathison as head of the county campaign and Elmer Lazenby heading up the Opelika fund drive.
Opelika continued to attract business. B & M Supermarket moved next to the Courthouse on 9th St. in early 1958 with James Brown and J.B. Morgan as owners. Several other locally owned businesses began during the 1950s that are still in business today: Story’s Market (1951), Mrs. Story’s Dairy Bar (1952), Frank Jones CPA (1957) and Dorn Auto Parts.
In June, 1958, the new Army Reserve Center across from the hospital was dedicated to the memory of Lt. Col. Robert B. Mardre. Mardre was superintendent of Opelika City Schools from 1933 until he entered the Army in 1942. Before his death in 1956, he served tours of duty in both Japan and  South Korea and received the Republic of Korea Distinguished Service Medal. Mardre was also instrumental in creating a program to supply clothing to needy Koreans (Some may not remember the Korean War, 1950 – July, 1953) which left South Korea devastated.
Mardre was also instrumental in establishing a Junior ROTC program in Opelika in 1935. Mardre’s family also made major contributions to Opelika. His wife, Mrs. Ethel Mardre, taught at Clift High School for many years and his son, Dr. Bob Mardre, practiced medicine in Opelika for roughly 40 years until his retirement in 2008. The Mardres’ daughter, Martha Mardre Scott, wife of I.J.Scott, Sr., died in 1996.
In Jan. 1959 a new Opelika High School building opened on Denson Drive (it is now Opelika Middle School). Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company also came to  town in January of 1959.
Also in 1959 Ampex Corporation bought a majority interest in OrrRadio, the business John Herbert Orr had founded in 1949 to manufacture the first magnetic recording tape in the U.S. Spokesmen for Ampex, which had acquired a minority interest in the business in 1957 and finally convinced Orr to sell the the controlling interest, were quoted as saying it was cheaper to just buy OrrRadio instead of buying so much of its product.
Finally Opelika native (born and bred) Clement Clay “Bo” Torbert began his political/judicial career with election to the lower house of the Alabama legislature. Torbert was later elected to the state Senate and, ultimately,  Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In recognition of his role in securing judicial reform and adequate funding for the highest state court to function properly, the state judicial building was named the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building, after Howell Heflin (who resigned as Chief Justice to run for the U.S. Senate) and Opelika’s Torbert.

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