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Opelika, the county seat of Lee County, derives its name from the Creek Indian word Opillaka with Opilu meaning swamp and laka meaning large. The "Big Swamp" name is somewhat a mystery. Draw a stright line from Atlanta to New Orleans, and Opelika will show up at the highest point along the route. How is it, that its Creek Indian name means "Big Swamp?"
The name is probably due to Opelika being surrounded by five major lakes and the Chattohoochee River. The streams and creeks throughout the area being fed by the lakes caused the Indians to choose "swamp" as a descriptive term.
Opelika is shown on the maps as far back as 1773. It was first settled in 1836-1837 and incorporated into a city in Russell County, February 9, 1854.
In 1837, Daniel Bullard built Lebanon. This was the Methodist church located within two miles of Opelika and built of split logs and boards. The church had a membership of 22 and included many of the founding families of Opelika. The church was moved to what is now downtown Opelika in 1857 and eventually became First United Methodist of Opelika.
In 1840, a post office was established. In 1848, the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, now the Western Railway of Alabama, reached Opelika.
Jack Holt built the first Opelika store, a small wooden shack, and David Watson became the first dry goods merchant. Beverly Johnson became the first Opelika mayor in 1854 to serve a one-year term.
Felix Hubbard, a blind peddler, became a landmark in Opelika. The Central of Georgia Railway gave Hubbard permission to build a shack on its property. Hubbard would sell hard boiled eggs, peanuts, apples and the Montgomery Advertiser to the train passengers and crew.
Opelika soon became an educational and social center with settlers coming in from cities such as Oakbowery, Gold Hill, Marvyn, Salem, Spring Villa, Wacoochee and other cities between Opelika and the Chattahoochee River.
Agriculture may have been the way of life for Opelika in the early days, but as growth came, so did industry.
The Opelika Cotton Mill came to Opelika in the early 1900's but eventually failed in the 1920's because of hard times during World War I. In 1935, M. Snower & Company, a Chicago garment and towel manufacturer for the rental linen supply trade, purchased the mill. The mill's name was changed to Opelika Manufacturing Corporation in 1951.
In 1925, the Pepperell Manufacturing Company textile plant came to Opelika. Pepperell merged with West Point Manufacturing Company in 1965 and became West Point-Pepperell. Later successes include the recruitment of the Uniroyal tire plant in 1963.
Another notable industry is Ampex (owned by and named Quantegy today) which produces magnetic recording tape. Ampex came to Opelika when it purchaed ORRadio Industries in 1958. John Herbert Orr had learned about the German's superior formula of producing magnetic tape while serving there during World War II. He further perfected the formula and invented the first tape recorder in the U.S. to test his product. The successes of his high fidelity magnetic tape caused Ampex to take notice and buy him out.
Diversified Products, which grew to become one of the largest manufacturers of exercise equipment in the nation, was founded in Opelika in the early 1960's by Opelika native Fob James. James revolutionized the weight lifting equipment business by patenting a formula using plastic discs filled with iron shavings and concrete mixture suitable for home and was less expensive than steel barbells.
In 1900, William J. Samford was the first Opelika resident to be elected as Governor of Alabama. In 1978, Fob James was the second. James was re-elected Governor in 1994. Today, Opelika is known as the industrial and trading center of East Alabama. Regardless of the record of progress, Opelika continues to preserve its friendly small-town flavor.