Uncover the past at museum of East Alabama: A genuine treasure of the region

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Those taking part in Sunday afternoon’s quarterly Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society meeting took an online tour of the Museum of East Alabama. Glenn Buxton, the museum’s curator and executive director, discussed this genuine treasure of the East Alabama region. The Museum of East Alabama is in the heart of historic downtown Opelika and houses more than 5,000 artifacts relating to the rural, business and architectural heritage of the Chambers, Lee, Macon, Tallapoosa and Russell County areas.

The museum dates to 1989. Founders Eleanor and John T. Harris led the effort to establish a museum in Opelika, where the couple had spent their summers. They had earlier worked to build a museum in McCook, Nebraska, Eleanor’s hometown, where they spent many a cold winter.

In Sunday’s Zoomcast, Buxton explained how the museum had grown from an old hardware store building on the corner of 9th Street and Avenue A that had been provided rent free to the Harrises by Andrew Story Sr. Yetta Samford donated the building next door, resulting in approximately 10,000 square feet of available display and storage space. The museum underwent a major $100,000 renovation in 2010, resulting in new lighting and interactive displays. The Charter Foundation made a $75,000 contribution to help get the museum off to a good start.

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The Museum of East Alabama receives an estimated 2,000 visitors each year. There’s no admission charge, and it’s open every Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. CDT and from 2-4 on Saturdays.

The pace has been picking up in the post-Covid world. 

“It has been an exciting time for us,” Buxton said. 

“We have made more changes in the past year-and-a-half than we have in the 17 years I have been here.”

Buxton has a background in radio and has managed a number of them in the east Alabama area. At one time, he managed WCJM in downtown West Point.

During the 2010 renovation, the museum was closed for seven months to completely re-do the interior. 

“The Auburn University School of Engineering and Interior Design helped us with it,” he said. “They did a great job in helping us better organize it. In 2009, one class spent an entire semester with us to come up with a plan to give us an entirely new look. They tinted the front windows to protect some of our displays from being damaged by sunlight.”

The renovation resulted in the museum having six separate divisions: East Alabama at Work, East Alabama at War, East Alabama on the Go, East Alabama at Play, the People of East Alabama and East Alabama at Home.

The East Alabama at Work section has the first and last tires manufactured at the Uniroyal plant in Opelika. The tires were meant for display and were signed by the workers. Buxton said he enjoys meeting them or their family members when they come in for visits. There are also items on display from Diversified Products, the company founded by Lanett native Fob James Jr. and run by his brother, Cal James. There’s an indoor farm-related exhibit featuring Old Nancy, a 1904 steam-powered tractor that was in use for many years at Auburn University. Old Nancy, at one time, ran a sawmill.

The agricultural area has an exhibit on cotton and its importance to state history. 

“Children and people from the North have never seen cotton on a plant,” Buxton said. “They are amazed by it. We also have on display an invention known as the Boll weevil catcher. I don’t know how good it worked, but I know cotton farmers tried them out.”

The Work section has one of the first looms to go into production in Opelika’s Pepperell Mill. It had been in storage at a local bank before being donated to the museum. There’s also a bale of cotton weighing more than 500 pounds. 

“I didn’t know that baled cotton was that heavy until John T. Harris got it for us,” Buxton said.

The Opelika mill was where the Academy Award-winning movie “Norma Rae” was filmed in 1979. Some memorabilia from the movie is on display in the museum.

The East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika has an exhibit on the medical history of the East Alabama region. Featured is an early wooden wheelchair.

There’s also a photo of Opelika’s original hospital. It was known as an infirmary and was located behind the present-day location of Trinity Baptist Church. EAMC opened in 1952. 

“It was a struggle at first,” Buxton said, “but it’s a big operation now.”

There’s a display about an Auburn University professor who played an important role in the heavy water experiments leading to the building of the atomic bomb in 1945.

Children coming to the museum love the Dairyland bike exhibit. The bike would deliver the ice cream made at Dairyland, located where the mall is currently.

There’s an exhibit on John Robert Orr, who founded Ampex in 1960. He was an Army intelligence officer in World War II and was directed to research areas where the Germans were more advanced than the Allies. One way was in magnetic recording. On display in the museum is one of only two known German-made magna corders known to exist. The other is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. There’s also some original Irish brand tape, which was popular in the early 1960s.

One of the bigger items in the At Work section is a 1949 Ford pumper truck that was once the mainstay of the Opelika Fire Department. It’s part of a very realistic fire and police department exhibit. Kids of all ages love sliding down on the fireman’s pole that’s in the exhibit.

“The fire truck looks brand new,” Buxton said, “but we don’t drive it. The brakes aren’t good.”

Each child who visits the museum is given a fireman’s hat and a coloring book of Opelika homes from the 1940s. The coloring book is reproduced from one that was originally circulated in the 1940s.

An impressive item in the East Alabama at War section is a 48-star U.S. flag from the World War II era. 

“It was sewn by Hugh Ray from the Valley,” Buxton said.

Military uniforms from the period are on display on manikins.

There are displays on two Medal of Honor recipients with Opelika connections. Both served in the Vietnam War. Robert Lewis Howard (1939-2009) was the most decorated officer of the Vietnam War who served with Special Forces. Bennie Adkins (1934-2020) was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in a 38-hour battle against North Vietnamese soldiers in the Battle of A Shau in 1966.

“Bennie Adkins was my accountant for a long time before I knew he was a Medal of Honor recipient,” Buxton said.

The East Alabama at War section has lots of military weapons, the most unusual of which is a collection of samurai swords brought back home by veterans of the Pacific Theater. 

The East Alabama on the Go section is about transportation. One of the more interesting exhibits in the museum is housed here. It was donated by an African-American family. It’s a really pretty mule-drawn carriage from the 19th century. The Dowdell family called it Cora.

A model of the Salem-Shotwell covered bridge is on display in the museum. 

“It was built by a Mr. Irwin from the Valley,” Buxton said. “It is so well built to scale that engineers came to look at it when they were studying to move it.”

The East Alabama at Play section has items such as a soap box derby car that once raced in Opelika and some of the most impressive doll collections. The antique dolls include two Roanoke dolls, one of which has been valued at $20,000. The Roanoke doll is thought to be the only commercially successful doll manufactured in the state of Alabama. Their production was directed in Roanoke by Langdale native Ella Smith.

The newest part of the museum is a Remembrance Project similar to the well-known one in Montgomery. It shows the locations of some known lynchings in the east Alabama region and has large glass jars of dirt taken from those sites.

Perhaps the oldest artifact in the museum is a Native American canoe that has been dated to 3500 B.C. It is from a group of 12 canoes found by archeologists near Gainesville, Florida. Florida State University has the other canoes.