Reference Sources for LEE COUNTY, ALABAMA
Located in east-central Alabama, Lee County was home to two Alabama governors: William J. Samford and Forrest “Fob” James. The county is also home to one of the two largest institutions of higher education in the state of Alabama: Auburn University. The county is governed by an elected six-member commission and includes eight incorporated communities, although only four lie entirely within the borders of Lee County.
· Founding Date: December 5, 1866
· Area: 609 square miles
· Population: 125,781 (2006 Census Bureau estimate)
· Major Waterways: Chattahoochee River
· Major Highways: Interstate 85, U.S. 280, U.S. 431
· County Seat: Opelika
· Largest City: Auburn
Lee County was created by an act of the Alabama legislature on December 5, 1866. The land that would eventually become Lee County came from a land cession to the United States by the Creek Indians in the 1832 Treaty of Cusseta. Lee County was created from lands carved out from Macon, Russell, Chambers, and Tallapoosa counties. Lee County was named in honor of General Robert E. Lee. The earliest settlers came to the area from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Some of the first towns included Opelika, Auburn, Salem, and Loachapoka. During World War II, Camp Opelika in Lee County served as one of four major prisoner-of-war camps in Alabama that housed mostly German soldiers captured in Africa and Europe. The camp then served as temporary housing for returning servicemen before the area was converted to an industrial site in the 1950s.
Opelika is the first and only county seat of Lee County. The first courthouse was built in 1867 by the formerly enslaved and renowned bridge builder Horace King. The two-story, brick building served as the county courthouse until a second courthouse was built in 1896 across the street from the original structure, which was eventually torn down. The 1896 courthouse has undergone a number of renovations since it was first built and continues to serve as the county courthouse for Lee County.
Major Cities and Demographics
The population of Lee County has increased steadily since 1990. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 1990 population of 87,146 had increased to 115,092 by 2000. By 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population to be 125,781. At the time of the 2005 estimate, the population consisted of 74.1 percent White, 23 percent African American, 1.6 percent Asian, and 1.6 percent Hispanic. The county ranked eighth in population among Alabama’s 67 counties in 2005. The largest city in Lee County is Auburn, with an estimated population of 49,978. Other significant population centers include Phenix City (partially located in Lee County, population 29,460), and Opelika (23,804). In 2004 the median household income was $34,660, compared with $37,062 for the state. In 1999 the per capita income was $17,158, compared with $18,189 for the rest of the state, ranking the county 18th in per capita income among Alabama’s 67 counties.
Like most of Alabama’s counties, farming was the prevailing occupation of Lee County until well into the twentieth century. Cotton, corn, and cattle served as the county’s main agricultural products. With its proximity to the Chattahoochee River and Georgia markets, however, shipping and other forms of transportation were also important parts of Lee County’s economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first major industry in Lee County was the Opelika Cotton Mill, which opened in 1900. Industrial development increased during the 1940s after the construction of dams on the Chattahoochee and Tallapoosa rivers provided hydroelectric power to the area. In recent decades, the economy has shifted to service and industry. As the home of Auburn University, Lee County is also recognized as a center of education in the state of Alabama.
Most of the workforce in Lee County in 2000 was employed in management and professional occupations (33.9 percent) and sales and office occupations (25.8 percent). Production and transportation made up 15.4 percent, and service work 15.2 percent of all occupations. Construction, extraction, and maintenance accounted for 9.2 percent of employment in the county, and farming and fishing made up only 0.6 percent of the jobs. Some of the largest employers in Lee County are Auburn University, East Alabama Medical Center, the City of Auburn and Water Works Board, and Wal-Mart.
The Lee County school system employs approximately 1,150 teachers and administrators who serve more than 9,200 students in 12 primary and secondary schools. Auburn City Schools employ nearly 700 teachers and administrators in 11 primary and secondary schools, serving more than 4,500 students. With more than 620 teachers and administrators, Opelika City Schools serve nearly 4,350 students in nine primary and secondary schools. Located in Auburn, Auburn University is one of the largest institutions of higher education in the state, with over 23,000 students. A land-grant institution, the university offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Southern Union Community College has campuses in both Opelika and Valley and offers two-year programs in the arts and sciences as well as technical and vocational degrees.
Comprising just over 600 square miles, Lee County is located in east-central Alabama along the Alabama-Georgia border. The northern half of the county is part of the Piedmont physiographic section, whereas the county’s southern portion is part of the Coastal Plain physiographic section. Some sources place the county in the eastern part of Alabama’s Black Belt, but others do not. Loblolly and shortleaf pine forests dot the county’s landscape. The county is bordered by Chambers County to the north, the state of Georgia to the east, Russell County to the south, and Macon and Tallapoosa counties to the west.
The Chattahoochee River and its tributaries flow throughout the eastern half of the county, whereas the Tallapoosa River and its tributaries flow throughout the western half. Together, the rivers provide a number of scenic views as well as recreational and economic opportunities for visitors to and citizens of Lee County.
Interstate 85 is one of Lee County’s main transportation routes, running southwest-northeast. U.S. 280 and U.S. 431 run southeast-northwest through most of the county and split at Opelika, where 431 continues north and 280 continues northwest. The Auburn-Opelika Robert G. Pitts Airport is Lee County’s only public airport.
Events and Places of Interest
There a number of recreational opportunities for visitors to Lee County. Chewacla State Park in Auburn offers 696 acres of hiking and biking trails as well as overnight camping facilities. The park also boasts a 26-acre lake for swimming, fishing, and boating as well as tennis courts, a playground, and picnic areas. Located on the campus of Auburn University, the Donald E. Davis Arboretum is home to 150 different tree species native to Alabama and the Southeast. The arboretum features a walking trail through the trees as well as a guide to help identify the different species. The Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve, run by the Auburn University school of Forestry and Wildlife Science, is located just north of campus. The 110-acre preserve includes a number of walking trails as well as a wetland preserve and butterfly garden. Other outdoor recreational opportunities in Lee County include Kiesel Park, the Lee County Public Fishing Lake, and Saugahatchee Lake in Opelika.
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University houses a permanent collection of American and European art in eight galleries and includes a gift shop, restaurant, auditorium, and formal gardens. The museum offers a number of educational programs throughout the year for people of all ages. The Lee County Historical Society Museum in Loachapoka features artifacts and memorabilia related to the history of Lee County in the nineteenth century. The museum is also the site of the annual Lee County Historical Fair held each October. The Museum of East Alabama in Opelika houses over 5,000 artifacts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other cultural attractions in Lee County include the Jonathan B. Lovelace Athletic Museum and Hall of Honor in Auburn and the Opelika Performing Arts Series, which hosts events such as Broadway tours and international and national symphony orchestras and opera companies.
There are a number of historical attractions throughout Lee County. The Loachapoka Historic District and the Northside Historic District of Opelika each contain a number of homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During mid-December, visitors can take self-driving and walking tours of historic Opelika, where more than 45 homes serve as backdrops for unique holiday decorations. Other historic attractions in Lee County include the turn-of-the-century Salem-Shotwell Covered Bridge, the 1896 Lee County Courthouse, and the Tiger Trail of Auburn, which honors Auburn University’s greatest athletes and coaches. Grand National Golf Course on Lake Saugahatchee in Opelika is part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.