By Greg Markley
Opelika, Texas is about an hour south of Dallas, in Henderson County. First called “Wanda,” it was renamed by a settler from, you guessed it, Opelika, Alabama. In 1914, it had its own post office, a poultry breeder, a cotton gin, a fruit-growers group and a general store.
Population reached a high of 50 after World War II and highway maps, circa mid-1930s, indicated a church, a school, but just one business. By the mid-1980s, maps pointed to a church and a cemetery.
Why does this matter to us in Opelika in 2019? Here’s why: Opelika, Texas was never a large town, but had one industry (from a nearby oilfield.) When that collapsed, Opelika, Texas became a ghost town. The Texas State Historical Association, of which I am a member, raises money by selling city and town property, unofficially. When contributors (or suckers?) like me pay $25, we receive a “Certificate of Purchase.” I looked up Opelika and Auburn, for tidbits about cities that share a name. But first: a definition of “ghost town.”
“A ghost town or alternatively deserted city is an abandoned village, town or city, usually that contains substantial visible remains,” wrote historian T. Lindsay Baker in “More Ghost Towns of Texas.” Changes do not only happen because of economic fallbacks, but “due to natural or human-caused disasters such as floods, droughts, government actions, lawlessness, war, pollution or nuclear disasters.”
Here’s the happy news: Opelika, Alabama, despite periodic tough times, is still here and certainly not a ghost town. Instead, it is a host town which has adapted quite well and has five times the population it had in 1930, when the land that became Opelika, Texas began its demise.
Opelika had approximately 30,000 residents as of 2018. In 1930, the census recorded just 6,000.
Our “host” city features a major shopping center (Tiger Town); large manufacturing industries such as Mando American (with between 500 and 1,000 employees); and medical companies like Baxter Healthcare. Opelika is, or has been, a host city as well to Bennie Adkins, Medal of Honor recipient; Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013; Will Herring, NFL player for the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints and Fob James, governor of Alabama (1979 to 1983; 1995 to 1999).
On Auburn: Many people have not heard of any of the 11 cities and two towns in the U.S. that are called “Auburn.” Note that the distinction between a town and a city is tenuous. For example, one Texas town has a higher population than some of the cities. Nevertheless, Merriam-Webster says a town is “a compactly settled area usually larger than a village.”
Merriam adds: “A city is an inhabited place of greater size, population and importance than a town or village.”
Ever wonder if Auburn, Alabama is the most populous city by that name? With the increased student enrollment at the university, we are a slam dunk, right? What about the percentage of population growth? What can stop Auburn, Alabama with all the building going on and new businesses sprouting?
The first winner is Auburn, Washington, with 82,000 people. Auburn, Alabama is second with a 65,000 population and Auburn, New York takes third with 26,500 residents. Regarding population growth, Touchdown Auburn! With a 23% growth rate, the Lee County city wins. Auburn, Michigan came in a respectable 19% population growth, while Auburn, Washington experienced a very good 17% population growth. (All are 2018 figures, except for Auburn, Michigan, which comes from 2013 data.)
When I moved to Opelika in 1996, it was trying to shrug off its unpopular label of being a “Railroad Town.” Now, it calls itself “Rich in Heritage with a Vision for the Future” – that’s more positive. Auburn was pejoratively being called a “Cow Town.” Now, it is growing like crazy, yet retains the beloved old motto of “The Loveliest Village on the Plains.” Folks, stay tuned: there is more to come.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the past 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.