Higher learning in many forms is the focus in this region of eastern Alabama.
By Lazelle Jones
Experienced travelers know that it’s often the nooks and crannies that prove to be the most interesting on the American scene. One such fascinating “” and educational “” region is just off Interstate 85, about 30 minutes west of Columbus, Georgia. Two little eastern Alabama cities are jewels in the crown of what was once the Confederate Deep South. And other treasures await nearby.
Auburn got its name from the first line of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith titled The Deserted Village: “Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain.” Today the town is best known for being the home of Auburn University.
This large learning institution has approximately 23,000 students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries. Auburn University is recognized for its visionary image of the future and for current achievements such as the development of a flea pill for animals, and canine training that is designed to counter terrorism. The university has been well represented in the U.S. manned space flight program, having graduated six astronauts, including the second woman to go into space. Auburn has one of the only “” if not the only “” Bachelor of Wireless Engineering programs in the country.
Visitors soon learn that the downtown area of Auburn and the university campus are one and the same. This interesting configuration of city and university creates a pleasurable collegiate and spirited atmosphere that permeates the shops, museums, performing arts center, and university buildings, as well as the downtown itself.
One stop everyone makes is at Toomer’s Corner, in the heart of Auburn. There, Toomer’s Drugstore is renowned (as long ago as 1896) for having the best lemonade found anywhere.
Another Auburn University tradition that has to be seen to be believed occurs after every Auburn football victory. Thousands of AU faithful converge at Toomer’s Corner to celebrate the win by hurling rolls of toilet tissue into the surrounding trees and lampposts in what is called the “rolling of the stately oak.” The city sets money aside specifically to pay for the cleanup that always follows this celebration.
Aside from college shenanigans and energy, the town has several prime attractions. The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University is the keystone of culture in this community. It features part of a collection of mid-20th-century paintings once criticized for their “modernity,” which museum buyers rescued from obscurity. A large collection of the beautifully detailed works of John J. Audubon also is on exhibit. The art can be enjoyed while strolling through galleries of travertine stone. Some of it is illuminated by natural sunlight that filters through a Dale Chihuly multi-tier, 17-foot glass chandelier. Very impressive! The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, and a small admission fee is charged.
The Auburn Athletic Complex includes the Jonathan B. Lovelace Athletic Museum, a facility that pays tribute to the great athletes, teams, coaches, and administrators who over the years have made Auburn University the spirited institution of higher learning that it is. Inside the museum you can listen to talking dioramas, enjoy interactive exhibits, and view the traditional displays that underscore the important role athletics has and continues to play at the school. Admission is free to this shrine and learning center, which is open weekdays and Saturdays, with special hours on “football” Saturdays and Sundays.
A bit northeast of Auburn sits the equally interesting town of Opelika. The town’s downtown historic district is home to the Museum of East Alabama. This is the place for historical artifacts galore, celebrating Alabama circa the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free (donations accepted).
Opelika is home to the Grand National Golf Course, part of the famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Auburn-Opelika has been named by Golf Digest magazine as the number-one golf metro area in the United States. In addition to Grand National, you’ll find top-rated Auburn Links at Mill Creek, plus others in the area.
Diners will enjoy choosing from almost 300 excellent eateries in the Auburn-Opelika area. One such spot is Auburn City Limits, an award-winning restaurant for the last two years.
The town of Opelika finds many of its roots in the Central Georgia Railway, a rich history that dates back to the 1840s. The city grew around Railroad Avenue, which is now known as the Opelika Historic District, where the original and refurbished Railroad Depot still stands. More of Opelika’s railroad history can be enjoyed at the Museum of East Alabama, which is also located downtown. Here, too, is the Northside Historic District (20 blocks), which features Victorian- and Greek Revival-style homes (simple, clean lines free of fancy millwork, with columns across the front) that date back 150 years. In the spring, when the dogwoods and azaleas bloom, the area really comes alive.
Built in 1896, the Lee County Courthouse remains a working, functioning courthouse. Located in downtown Opelika, the courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public.
As far as motorhome parking goes, it’s much easier in Opelika. Ample parking is available along Railroad Avenue, and a large parking lot is located across from Courthouse Square. In Auburn, parking is available on campus on weekends only. During the week the lots are filled with students’ cars and parking permits are required. If you do visit during the week, you may be fortunate to find parking on campus at The Hotel at Auburn University. Of course, if you are towing a smaller vehicle and drive it into town, parking issues will be less problematic.
Amateur sports are really a big deal here, as evidenced by the multimillion-dollar sports complexes that dot the area. These include a softball complex where youth and amateur tournaments are held year-round. At an aquatic center, rated among the best in the entire country, swimming tournaments are hosted. Tennis, youth baseball, and soccer facilities are all represented in this youth and amateur athletics genre.
The area offers even more outdoor recreation. Chewacla State Park is a 690-acre expanse offering a lake and waterfalls, plus hiking trails, swimming, and a campground. Lee County Lake furnishes boats for rent and is also open to the public for fishing. And the 110-acre Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve, north of Auburn on State Route 147, features a nature center, wooded hiking trails, and a variety of areas, such as wetlands and a butterfly garden.
For your last bit of education, visit a true piece of Americana just 20 minutes from Auburn. Take exit 38 from I-85 and head south on State Route 81 to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. This place is so new, it’s not even fully open yet, but you can still pay tribute to the thousand-plus black airmen who trained here and then flew and supported combat missions in World War II.
The grand opening of phase one of the museum, which will include vehicles and the original hangar, will take place in March 2008. Until that time, visitors can view the historic hangar from the outside. More importantly, they also can stop inside the temporary visitors center, which has exhibits and an auditorium where films are shown depicting the airmen’s experience. A small bookstore is on site, too. Limited guided walks to historic Moton Field, where the airmen received basic flight training, also are available. The site is open daily, and admission is free. Ample motorhome parking is available. Call (334) 724-0922 or visit www.nps.gov/tuai for more information.
A couple of minutes farther down the highway is Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, an African American university that was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Today the site is part of the campus of Tuskegee University. Washington started the school of higher education to help meet the needs of those who had been emancipated but who lacked the skills and tools necessary to meet a changing world. His strong belief in improving the lives of the local sharecroppers was the beginning of the Moveable School, which traveled outside the boundaries of the institute to provide education. His home, called The Oaks, which was built by students around 1899, stands today as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver, who was teaching at Iowa State University, to join the faculty at Tuskegee in 1896 to organize its Agriculture Department. During his tenure, which lasted from 1896 until his death in 1943, Carver researched and developed the kinds of agricultural sciences that had specific application to the needs of farmers in the South. Today, Tuskegee University hosts a strong engineering program, but it still retains its historical focus on the agricultural sciences as well.
This site, like the Tuskegee Airmen site, is operated by the National Park Service. Visitors tour the George Washington Carver Museum, which contains items from Carver’s laboratory and the equipment he used in his research, as well as the natural life paintings and sketches he enjoyed creating as a second passion. Thirty-minute films about Carver and Washington are shown there to further acquaint visitors with these gentlemen. Ranger-guided tours of The Oaks, which begin at the Carver Museum, also are available. In addition, the campus is a historic district with impressive buildings you can stroll past and admire.
Admission to this site is free, and it is open daily. And yes, there is plenty of motorhome parking at Tuskegee University. Call (334) 727-3200 for more info, or visit www.nps.gov/tuin.
All of these sites are great examples of what you can find if your travel wishes tend toward seeing the best of Americana. And to never stop learning!
Auburn-Opelika Convention & Visitors Bureau
714 E. Glenn Ave.
Auburn, AL 36830
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the campground list in the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Bar W RV Park
891 Lee Road 395
Auburn, AL 36830
Chewacla State Park
124 Shell Toomer Parkway
Auburn, AL 36830
Lakeside RV Park
5664 U.S. 280 E.
Opelika, AL 36801
Leisure Time Campground
2670 S. College St.
Auburn, AL 36830