Opelika in the 60’s


By Fred Woods


In the mid-1960s, one could buy a little boy’s two-piece Easter suit for $12.99 or a little girl’s Easter dress for $3.99 at Bargain Town U.S.A. in downtown Opelika. Bargain Town, on South 8th St. at the corner of Avenue B was roughly equivalent to today’s Dollar General stores.
At the Big Apple Supermarket, six bottles of Coca Cola cost 29 cents and a whole fryer was 24 cents a pound. At Kwik-Chek a chuck roast  was $0.49 per pound, ground chuck was $1.33 for two pounds and red grapes (with seeds), $0.10 per pound. At Jack’s Hamburgers, a hamburger and French fries cost 15 cents and a soft drink was a dime. Times sure have changed.
In the May 25, 1960, edition of the Opelika Daily News, large headlines read “Opelika’s population 15,560, with Auburn counting 16,148.” Both cities were growing by leaps and bounds. Earlier that month, Starnes Food Land, an independent supermarket, opened for business; Vernon Starnes owned and operated the business.
In 1962, Fob James and associates began operations for what would eventually become known as Diversified Products Corporation. At its peak the company employed more than 3,000 people worldwide, with 1,000 in Opelika, and was considered a worldwide leader in recreational/physical fitness equipment sales until its demise in 1989.
Also in July 1962, the U.S. Rubber Company announced plans to build a massive, state-of-the-art tire plant which produced its first tire (now on display at the Museum of East Alabama) in December 1963. A company spokesman said that it was the world’s most modern and efficient tire manufacturing facility. Howard E. Drew was the first manager of the U.S. Rubber Tire Company (later Uniroyal.)
In February 1960, the president of Ampex Corporation, from Redwood City, Calif., was guest speaker at the Chamber of Commerce’s 19th annual banquet. Ampex had just acquired Opelika’s ORRadio the previous year. R.L.Pappas became manager of ORRtronics, the next firm organized by John Herbert Orr. ORRtronics developed the lubricated tape used in closed loop tape systems. These systems were produced in home, commercial and automotive versions.
Polio was a dreaded crippling disease and, in the spring of 1960, the Community Polio Project was launched “… to prevent any possible epidemic of polio during the dangerous summer months ahead.” This project involved closing the city swimming pool and cautioning private pool owners. Already the Saulk vaccine was available and the Sabin oral vaccine was on the horizon, being licensed in 1962. By the end of that year less than 100 cases were reported nationally.
The Lee County Mental Health Center opened with Joe Coon as Director of the Center.
In the fall of 1960 a national study was released that made Opelikans proud. The study, using U.S. Census data, showed that nearly half of Opelika households (46.3 {44c616e11cf70d617c8dd92fb0bc15f41001df771f775c6b004238009c89a3f0}) were in income brackets above $4,000 annually, substantially above other cities in this general area. The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer newspaper carried a headline reading “Opelika Income Listed High in National Survey.” In the accompanying article, reporter Luke Teasley wrote, “Opelika is the city which believes that today is the time to go and get the industry and other prosperity-boosting enterprises which they need and that tomorrow will take care of itself.”
During this period an Opelikan named Billy Hitchcock was becoming better known in the baseball world. Primarily a utility infielder in his major league playing career with five teams, including the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers and the old Philadelphia Athletics, Hitchcock was named manager of the Baltimore Orioles in Oct., 1961. He was Opelika’s first major league manager and Hitchcock was honored with a “Billy Hitchcock Day.”
After two seasons, he was replaced as Orioles manager. Then, in 1966, Hitchcock took over managing the Atlanta Braves for the final third of the season, finishing strongly, and the entire 1967 season, finishing not very well. During a brief, little over a year, retirement from baseball, he returned to Opelika, something he had done in the off-season for most of his career, and worked at the Opelika Hardware Store at the corner of South 8th St. and South Railroad Ave. (several years later he and Jesse Royal would buy the hardware store).
Later Billy Hitchcock was the highly successful commissioner of the Class AA Southern League with league attendance rising dramatically during his ten-year tenure.
Early in the 1960s two new community centers were opened, both of which are still in use: the Opelika Community Center on Denson Drive and the Central Park Community Center (now called the Covington Recreation Center) on Carver St. Two new schools were also added: Pepperell Elementary and Carver Elementary.
Editor’s note: Several years before his death, Henry Stern gave us a number of articles on Opelika history in various decades. Some were fairly comprehensive, some rather sketchy. Henry didn’t know who wrote them. One of them formed the basis for this article.


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