As I Like It!

End of an Era

As I like it!




Todd Van Emst/Opelika=Auburn News

In the latter part of 2016, the last vestige of Opelika’s mill town heritage burned to the ground. The abandoned Leshner Cotton Mill had been closed since 1985, but in its heyday, employed over a thousand workers. Opelika’s location at the intersection of two major rail lines assured it a prominent position in the booming textile mills that were sprouting up in the Coosa River Basin in eastern Alabama and West Georgia.

By the early years of the twentieth century, the mills provided owners and investors with riches and luxury. They built spacious Victoria homes that stand today in Opelika’s historic district. Along with great personal wealth, the mills spawned a prosperous middle class of workers and managers.

This prosperity lasted until the 1960s when a perfect storm of international events destroyed the domestic textile industry. Mills began to close all across the Coosa River Basin, and Leshner didn’t escape. In 1979, the mill was used as the site of the movie, Norma Rae, starring Sally Fields and Beau Bridges, then began a rapid decline leading to its closing in 1985.

Many of the mill towns in this area simply gave up, and with the lost jobs, the towns saw the mass migration of their workforce. Opelika has been an exception, and with active civic responsibility and excellent political leadership, it has made the transition to a high-tech and automotive center. Under Mayor Gary Fuller, the city has installed a fiber optics system that has helped transform Opelika from a mill town to one of the most desirable cities in the South.

We still honor our past as a mill and railroad town, but we are focused on the future. We say a sad farewell to our historical roots and welcome the challenges of the 21st century.

2 replies »

  1. Happy New Year, Tom. Our older son, Wyatt, was born in Opelika in 1965 when I was at Auburn, and the textile mills were still an economic factor in the region. More importantly, the “State Store” was in Oplika, which outranked the mills’ importance to Auburn students! My former mother-in-law was fairly overbearing, and was with me in the waiting room during the “birthing”, and doubtful (as a former nurse) of the ability of small town staff to professionally care for her daughter. When Dr. Strother (a very bright and competent….& funny) man strolled off the elevator in loafers / no socks (fashion of the day), Mrs. May was visibly dubious. He strolled back by in about 20 minutes and said, “It’s a boy! Goodnight”.

    I hope I eventually have the opportunity to see Opelika again. I’m sure I’d be lost after all these years.

    Sent from Outlook


  2. Thank goodness you can still get grits, hog jowls, pickled pigs feet, and chitterlings or Opelika would have totally changed character.

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