By Ann Cipperly
Editor’s note: This article was based on an interview with Mrs. Inez Duke Searcy in the early 1990s. Mrs. Searcy grew up on Avenue A in the house that is now occupied by the Opelika Chamber of Commerce.
One of Opelika’s most beautiful older homes has housed the Opelika Chamber of Commerce since 1987. The Whitfield-Duke-Searcy House, circa 1895, at 601 Ave. A, was in Judge Lum Duke’s family for more than 75 years before the Searcy family sold the house to First Alabama Bank in 1979. Built by L. Broughton Whitfield, the house is a distinctive Queen Anne Victorian style.
Inez Duke Searcy grew up in the house during a time when there were no televisions, computers or cell phones. Life was lived at a slower pace, revolving around family and friends.
Mrs. Searcy’s mother, Inez Harwell, grew up on Avenue A in a house located where Hilyer and Associates, who just sold their building to the City of Opelika, is today. Searcy’s grandfather built the house in 1879. Inez’s mother and her father, Judge Lum Duke, were married in 1898 and wanted to move to Avenue A, but at the time there were no houses available. While they waited, they lived on Geneva Street.
Around 1901, L. Broughton Whitfield, who built the house at 601 Ave. A, moved to Montgomery. Searcy’s parents purchased the house. Inez was a toddler when they moved.
After Whitfield moved to Montgomery, he made and sold syrup under the label, ALAGA, which stands for Alabama and Georgia. The syrup was made using local cane in Montgomery. Later, he was the founder of Alabama Girl and Whitfield Pickles.
Inez’s father, Judge Duke, was a native of Georgia and graduated from API, now Auburn University.
The Whittelsey family lived across the street. The school, called Palmer Hall, was at the end of the block where City Hall is today. Since the school was so close, Inez and her brother William came home for lunch every day, and they often brought friends home from school.
After one of William’s friends had been coming over for lunch every day for a long time, Inez’s mother mentioned to the boy’s mother, who was a friend, about him being at the house for lunch. The boy’s mother was surprised. The little boy had been taking his lunch to school every day, but was giving it away to go home with William for lunch.
Having the school so close was a problem for the families on Avenue A. The school didn’t have a phone and did not want one. The children went to the houses on the street daily to call their mothers about going home with friends and other such questions. That was the only time children used the phones, Inez remembered, as phones were for adults.
At that time, phone numbers were only two digits. The Duke’s phone number was 56, and the bakery was 57.
During the school year, Inez and William had to study long hours. The large hall upstairs was the library where the walls were lined with bookcases. The room also had a leather lounge chair and a sofa.
On rainy days throughout the year, the children spent many hours in this room reading. The large stained glass window at the front of the hall provided plenty of light.
During the summer months, it was a great sport at night for children to play under the streetlight. In those days, a pole held the light, which was extended over the street.
At that time there were no paved sidewalks, and the children skated on the front porch. They knocked out the original banister on the porch, which was replaced.
It was a big day in Opelika when the streets were paved. Avenue A was one of the first three streets paved. On Sunday afternoon, it was sport to sit on the front porch and watch people who had cars ride from one paved street to another. They would drive down one street, turn around at the end of the street and then ride down the other paved street.
Since there was no air conditioning, everyone had their windows open in the summer. There were only a few teens who had cars, and those who did gave a special horn blow when they went by the house. One would signal if they wanted her to come out, which was an amusement to Inez.
During the summer months, the ladies of the town sat on the front porches and shelled beans or peas waiting for someone to walk by to chat.
In the afternoons, ladies held receptions. Punch was served on the front porch, while heavier refreshments were served inside. Ladies played dominos and a card game called whist. Later they included other card games, including bridge.
At night, couples entertained in their homes. An average dinner would include 10-12 people. A buffet would have been out of the question. Normally, the family’s household help served the meal, and occasionally extra help was used.
The kitchen in the house was large, and it took the cook all day to prepare three meals for the family using a coal stove. The butler’s pantry was next to the dining room. The family ate all of their meals in the formal dining room. Later, the butler’s pantry was enlarged to become a breakfast room.
The family had one of the first two electric stoves in town, which was around 1918-1920. Mrs. Duke saw one and wanted one in their home. It only had two burners.
The Duke family made little changes to the house over the years. In 1932 when gas came to Opelika, a new furnace was installed. The widow’s walk was destroyed by a storm and had to be replaced.
The family had a large garden every year, fruit trees and plenty of flowers as well. Yellow roses, called Marshall Nell, grew on the side of the house up over the porch.
One thing Mrs. Duke liked about the house was the large brick flower pit in the backyard where they stored flowers and plants over the winter months. Later, when there was heat in the house, the pit was filled and became a flowerbed.
A palm in the yard was planted in 1940. Violets were planted around the palm and were surrounded with a brick border.
For entertainment, people would walk to the drug stores in town, and as more people got cars they drove in. Searcy remembered there was one cafe, located near the present Breezeway, operated by Greeks, that stayed open late. There was another restaurant, which was also run by a Greek family, on Railroad Avenue.
People also enjoyed walking to the park in front of the railroad tracks where there was a bandstand and a mineral spring in a gazebo. There was also another mineral spring on Ninth Street, both of which were later capped.
Both the Duke children, Inez and William, became attorneys. Inez Duke Searcy was among the first women in the state to graduate from law school. Searcy had a son, Lum Duke Searcy, who was also an Opelika attorney.
The house stayed in the family until 1979 when it was sold to a bank. A few years later, it became the home of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce.
Today, Avenue A is busy with activity, and no one stops to watch a car go by. The gardens are gone, and no one sits on the porch waiting for a neighbor to walk past. However, the Whitfield-Duke-Searcy house remains as a reminder of bygone days and a gracious time in Opelika’s history, serving as a stately home for the Opelika Chamber of Commerce in its 75th year.