By Ann Cipperly
Located at the site of the old Clement Hotel on 9th Street in downtown Opelika, the Museum of East Alabama will celebrate its 30th anniversary Aug. 20 from 4 to 6 p.m. The public is invited to the anniversary celebration. Homemade goodies, ice cream and Toomers’ lemonade will be served.
The museum was founded by Eleanor and John T. Harris, who were determined and worked tirelessly for Opelika to have a museum to preserve the history of Lee and surrounding counties.
John T. grew up on his ancestral family farm in Cusseta. After graduating from Auburn University, he went to New York City and was working on Wall Street for Western Union when he met Eleanor.
Born in McCook, Nebraska, Eleanor had graduated from a local college at age 18, and was attending Juilliard School in New York City. She had a love of music from an early age, playing the piano at age four and the violin at 11. She graduated with a degree in music education from Julliard and a master’s degree from Columbia University with a minor in history.
John T. and Eleanor met at a party when she had a date with his roommate. When she started dating John T., Eleanor began writing her parents every day about him.
John T. talked Eleanor into visiting his family in Opelika. She received a blessing from her family to “go check him out.”
After a small wedding in Auburn during the Great Depression, they returned to New York.
When Eleanor was expecting their first child, John T. knew he did not want to raise his family in the city. They lived in several places before deciding to return to the farm in Opelika. John T. worked the farm himself, while Eleanor took care of their three sons.
When her father died, her mother was not able to run the family business and a ranch. They moved back to McCook for John T. to run the family department store. They traveled back to the farm for summers and Christmas. Eleanor had three more boys, growing their family to six sons.
While Eleanor was raising six sons, she was also working in preservation and the arts. In McCook, she started a historical society, founded the High Plains Museum and a community orchestra. She played the violin in the orchestra. With her dedication to the arts, she was named to a five-state Midwest arts alliance.
When John T. retired, they moved to the farm in Opelika, but they did not retire from community service. John T. said since Eleanor started a museum in her hometown that he would open one in his beloved hometown.
John T. was 80, and Eleanor was 77 when they took on the project. While it took a few years of planning, John T. refused to give up on a museum to preserve important items of the past. He felt too much had already been lost because there was no place to collect and preserve artifacts.
The Harris’ contacted Opelika Chamber of Commerce Director Henry Stern. An organizational meeting was held at the old chamber building and meetings continued for a year.
When plans for the museum weren’t moving quickly enough for John T., he asked the board to let him be a benevolent dictator for three years, and there would be a museum. A man of his word, the Museum of East Alabama became a reality.
After exploring two or three locations, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Story Sr. offered their empty building on 9th Street, a former hardware store. John T. arranged to have the building rent-free for three years with an option to buy at the end of the three years.
Hardware display racks were removed. Dick Moreman selected paint to cover the bright orange walls of the former store. Smith T Building Supply, Home Fashion Center and Bi-City Décor donated paint and supplies. John T. arranged for prisoners to paint the interior.
The first donations were a desk and two chairs by Jimmy Collins.
At the end of June 1989, the museum board and local officials met at the refurbished building.
“We are very happy for this day,” John T. said. “We have been looking forward to having a home for the Museum of East Alabama. Our purpose is to preserve and display the items of historical value to this area.”
He believed if Opelika had a museum earlier, many items of historical value would have been saved.
The museum began accepting items on July 10, 1989. John T. continued working to gather support and solicit contributions.
Volunteers were instrumental from the beginning. Doris Cannon and Ann Price were in charge of accepting items. Anna Asbury arranged the displays.
Memorabilia began coming in from John T. Herbert Orr, Billy Hitchcock, Bo Torbert, former governors and local banks. A piano originally owned by General Bullard of Oak Bowery was donated. Items were recorded in a ledger.
In a short time, objects from industry and agriculture began filling shelves. The Harris’ donated a buggy and many farm tools.
The museum officially opened Aug. 10, 1989. Volunteers kept the museum operating until funds were available to hire a director.
At the first anniversary party on Aug. 5, 1990, the more than 100 volunteers were honored. City officials attended and John T. read a letter from Gov. Guy Hunt commending the museum for its successful first year.
Eleanor wrote about the first anniversary in her newspaper column, “What’s New With The Old.”
“As usual, the community responded,” she wrote. “David Rogers of Food World Bakery provided a beautiful birthday cake. Madeline Voit of the catering service, Surprise Creations, made lemonade and roasted some delicious peanuts.
“Charlie Trammell of TCBY furnished yogurt cups. Members of the board presided over the birthday table.
“It was interesting to me to see how diverse the ages of our visitors were. Quite a few children, senior citizens and all those in between seemed to find something that caught their attention. That is our aim- something for everyone.”
As the museum celebrated its first anniversary, it was near capacity. John T. asked Yetta Samford and his sister to donate the building next door. City workers cut an opening between the two buildings and built a ramp to the second building, which is called the annex. That space also filled up.
When the museum celebrated its 20th anniversary, Director Glenn Buxton was working with the Auburn University School of Design for plans to methodically arrange the artifacts. The museum was remodeled with new flooring, and displays were arranged for easier viewing.
After John T. passed away, Eleanor continued her involvement with the museum, attending board meetings and opening the meetings with prayer. Although she was nearly blind, the gracious lady continued to attend special events at the museum until she passed away on her 102nd birthday.
On the 30th milestone anniversary, the Harris’ son Bert Harris reflected, “The museum truly owes its existence to so many wonderful people who have been willing to donate their family treasures, their time and money to make the museum a success.
“We invite everyone to come and celebrate this wonderful occasion with us. We hope that the next 30 years will be equally successful. The museum has truly been a blessing for the people of this area and has helped keep our heritage intact.
“In addition, it has been visited by people from all over the country and indeed all over the world,” Bert added. “Each visitor now has a better appreciation and understanding of the history of this wonderful place.”
The Harris’ determination and efforts preserved a portion of the past for future generations to see and understand the history of East Alabama. The community is invited to be a member of the museum and become part of helping to preserve the past.
Seven years ago, the museum began its popular annual fundraiser, “Taste of the Town,” which is held on the third Tuesday in April. The event features small plates from local restaurants and beverages from wineries, breweries and distilleries, as well as a silent auction. The event is a sell-out every year.
The Museum of East Alabama is located at 121 S. 9th St. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m.