Opelika in the 1940s: we’ve come a long way
Special to the
To many people, the 1940s conjure up a picture of a world war and perhaps the loved ones who were lost during service, but the 1940s also held a lot of positive things for Opelika and its residents.
For instance, business continued to boom when, in 1940, D.C. Edmondson founded the Dista-Cast Corporation, a fisherman’s dream. This company manufactured fishing equipment of all sorts. After Edmondson’s death, his wife continued to operate the company which shipped its products to about 35 states across the nation. Dista-Cast continued in business until the early 1960s when Mrs. Edmundson retired and discontinued the business.
It is ironic that recently a group called “Bar Flies” has emerged in an attempt to organize local fly tiers, fly fishermen and tackle craft people. The current effort is obviously not a commercial enterprise but it does relate to the earlier tradition of fishing equipment.
In 1940, Opelika had a population of about 8,487, but it was only starting its rapid growth. In 1941, some Opelika residents wanted to form a corporation that would promote the civic, commercial, industrial and agricultural interests of the city. The Opelika Chamber of Commerce was the result on January 13, 1941, when a group of fifty people met to discuss this strong need for the community. The Chamber was incorporated with 136 charter members. During the 1940s, the Chamber promoted new business and industry and provided valuable information for business owners and people wanting to start a business,
World War II for the U.S. began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. By Dec. 10, volunteers crowded the local recruiting station. The National Guard Medical Detachment, 167th Infantry (Rifle) departed to New Guinea and other Pacific islands after intense training at various stateside camps.
In addition, many civilians volunteered for Civilian Defense and created First Aid classes and a Canteen Corps. Civilians also worked many hours at Red Cross headquarters sewing, knitting and making bandages for the injured. Opelika’s United Service Organization became a popular place for the men stationed at nearby Army camps. But war also hit a little closer to home when German prisoners were sent to a Prisoner of War camp on the outskirts of Opelika where Orr Industries (Ampex) would later be located.
In 1944, the Opelika City Planning Commission was created and, in Oct., 1945, an architect named Charlie McCallie devised plans for a 75-room hospital in Opelika that residents felt was long overdue. McCallie was an expert in hospital architecture from Birmingham. The Chamber of Commerce and its Board of Directors were working hard to make the proposed new hospital come true. According to an October 24, 1945, Opelika Daily News article, the Alabama State Health Department recommended Opelika to be one of the sites for a new hospital in the state.
In 1946, another business got its start. The East Alabama Frozen Foods and Provision Company began with 20 original stockholders. The company would continue to operate until 1960 when its local owners sold the business to the Columbus, Georgia-based Southern Provision Company.
Disaster struck when a tornado hit Opelika in March 1948, destroying homes and businesses. In the March 27, 1948 edition of The Opelika Daily News, the large, bold headlines on the front page read “TORNADO HITS OPELIKA, Property Damage Heavy; Only Four persons Injured.” The first sentence read “Dawn broke today on a debris-filled, storm-ravaged Opelika.” Mayor John Lewis Whatley declared a limited state of emergency and the estimated damage figures ran into the six figures, the article stated. Jones Tin Shop on First Avenue was demolished as well as the United Grocery Company on North Railroad Avenue.
As the nation’s economy prospered in the early 40s from industrial growth to furnish equipment and supplies needed in America’s WWII effort, Opelika shared in this growth. When the German POW camp finally released its prisoners, the camp was sold to the city to become Opelika’s first industrial park.
John Lewis Whatley served as mayor from 1942-49 and Dan Rencher, Jr., served the position from 1949-51. In 1948, a Water Board was organized for Opelika, building a water treatment plant at the 565-acre Lake Saugahatchee to provide Opelika with its main water supply. Lake Saugahatchee had been built in 1941. Prior to 1946 Spring Villa had been Opelika’s primary water source.
In 1948, Opelika’s population had grown to 15,000 from 8,487 just eight years before. Also in 1948, 14 passenger trains and 40 freight trains left Opelika daily. Opelika also more than 25 churches of all major Christian denomonations serving its citizens.
During this time, Opelika was also known as a flower center with two wholesale florists operating in the municipality. The Opelika nurseries (Hall Wholesale Florist and Renfro Florist) were famous for their Easter lilies, poinsettias and potted plants which were shipped throughout the nation.
Meanwhile , the Pepperell Manufacturing Company was becoming nationally known for its “Lady Pepperell” sheets and had just completed the new Bleachery and Dye Works which was supposed to be the most modern plant of its kind in the world. Opelika Manufacturing Company (the Old Mill) continued to thrive as well.
Opelika also had the Clement Hotel, which offered guests 100 rooms. Fifty were furnished with a bath and 50 were without. The only other hotel in town, the Park Hotel, had 15 rooms, three with bath and 12 without.
Opelika was becoming known to others as well. In the June 27, 1948 edition of the Birmingham News, Jack House, state news editor, wrote, “East Alabama’s shopping center! That’s what they call Opelika, county seat of Lee County.” He proceeded to say that farmers from everywhere, from east Alabama and west Georgia, liked to come to Opelika to shop. The headlines read “East Alabama Roads Seem to Flow to Opelika.”
House called Opelika a “progressive town.” He wrote, “It is becoming a livestock center along with other Alabama towns.” He also pointed out that Opelika was a junction point for U.S. Highways 431, 280 and 29 and State Highways 37, 14 and 51. Opelika has 40 industries. House also stated, “It is the home of the world’s largest fish hook manufacturing company. Dista-Cast Products Company produces a large percentage of the fishing hooks, lures and other equipment used by fishermen in the world.”
Lastly, he said that Opelika could be summed up thusly: “Big Enough to Serve You, but Small Enough to Know You.”
In sports, the Opelika Owls, a team in the Class D Georgia-Alabama League, opened their season on April 27, 1949, and played against the Valley Rebels. The Opelika Daily News printed a special opening night section of the newspaper complete with player biographies, statistical information and player photos. Also, souvenir opening day tickets went on sale, and fans were advised to buy early to avoid long lines at the park. Don Bailey, former Owl star, covered all home games for the Opelika Daily News and was also official scorekeeper for the Owls.
In 1946, Al Rigell had become a member of the board of directors and a stockholder in an organization called the Opelika Baseball Club. Rigell was later chosen as president of the Opelika Baseball Club for the 1949 season. Rigell stressed that the Owls were truly a hometown team with 91 stockholders representing almost every kind of business and profession in the area.. He said, “I’d like to express the appreciation of the club to all the individuals and merchants who have contributed of their time, efforts and money to help the Opelika team — not only for Wednesday’s opening game but throughout the years.”
The decade of the 40s represented dynamic times of growth and prosperity for the progressive city of Opelika.