Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same for this small community located just west of Anniston.
The Wellborn community has gone through a bumpy integration, the rise and decline of the pipe shop industry, championship seasons and one-win seasons in high school sports, yet through it all, Wellborn has always been … Wellborn.
“We feel like today we’ve got probably the best people in the world — I think in all of Calhoun County — in our community,” said Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson, who has lived his whole life in Wellborn. “We’ve become middle class and have done a lot of good things, and we’ve had a lot of good leadership.”
With the incorporation of its high school in 1954, the community became known as Wellborn, named for longtime Calhoun County School Board member Walter H. Wellborn.
In the spring of 1939, the people of Mechanicsville requested that a State Survey Committee come to Mechanicsville to determine the possibility of building a high school in the area because students at that time who were completing theninth grade had to be transported to Calhoun County High School in Oxford, or pay tuition to attend Anniston High School. The committee recommended the building of a high school to serve the Mechanicsville, Eulaton and Saks communities.
“Mechanicsville went to the ninth grade for many years and, when you went to senior high school, you went to Oxford and when Wellborn (high school) was built, they pushed Mechanicsville back to the sixth grade, and the seventh grade on up went to Wellborn (high school) so that made a shift in the educational part,” said Sheriff Larry Amerson, who grew up in Wellborn.
Amerson, who has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, is a proud Wellborn graduate who was also editor of the school newspaper.
“Oxford was the closest county school; my mother and father both went to Oxford,” Amerson said. “I have some relatives who graduated from Wellborn. The elementary school I went to was called Mechanicsville; it’s closed now.”
Starting the high school
In 1945, a fire destroyed Eulaton Elementary School, and the Anniston Ordnance Depot — which has been called the Anniston Army Depot since Aug. 1, 1962 — continued to expand well into the 1940s during World War II, causing workers to move their families into the area that would be known as Wellborn and causing Mechanicsville Elementary School to become overcrowded.
Aug. 1, 1954, Walter Wellborn High School opened its doors after the superintendent, Dr. C. Frank Newell, members of the Calhoun County Board of Education, and the residents of Eulaton and Mechanicsville made plans to establish a high school that would serve both Eulaton and Mechanicsville communities, instead of rebuilding Eulaton as an elementary school.
Many older members of the Wellborn community, like Amerson’s parents, have a different sense of community, having had to commute back and forth to Oxford to attend school.
Amerson said he believes having the high school in the Wellborn community has made students feel like they have a place to call home, as opposed to it being just another place to attend school.
The high school and community were named for Walter H. Wellborn, who was from a prominent family of Anniston bankers. Wellborn became a member of the school board, and his family later donated land to build the school.
“Even though it wasn’t as clearly defined for many years and it being newer, there was a lot of pride that school brought to everyone in the community,” Amerson said. “… because, like my parents, they went to Oxford, (but) they didn’t live in Oxford; they weren’t associated with Oxford; they were in and out.”
An Aug. 29, 1955, issue of The Anniston Star reported that nearly 800 students were expected at the new Wellborn High School, one year after the school first opened its doors. And each year, a grade was added until the school became a fully accredited high school.
Many of the parents of these students worked in nearby textile and steel-manufacturing foundries.
Back in what Henderson refers to as “the old days,” Wellborn was a different type of community that consisted of lower-income and working-class residents who mostly worked and lived in company housing for the steel mills that were called “pipe shops.”
“A lot of folks, they didn’t have to take a car to work,” said Wellborn Elementary School Principal Doug O’Dell. “They could walk to work. Way back in the ’50s they just walked.”
He said residents lived in what were called “mill villages” where all the houses looked alike because they were company-built.
“They would sell the house to the workers and not the bank,” O’Dell said. “The company owned the house, so when you went to work at the mill, part of your paycheck paid your rent until your house was paid or you could buy the house.”
But, during the 1960s the soil-pipe industry began to get competition from the rise of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipes, which began to supplant big-iron manufacturers, eventually leading to layoffs and job losses in the Wellborn community.
U.S. Pipe and Foundry, Ford Motor Co., and M&H Valve all had a similar fate as Rudisill Foundry, which closed and began the era of steady decline in Anniston’s pipe industry.
“When they developed PVC piping and we got away from it, it was cheaper and easier to produce, what do you do?” O’Dell said. “So eventually those foundries faded out and with those jobs went those people from west Anniston, not just here within the city limits but those in the outskirts like where we’re at because people had to go where the jobs went. The steel jobs all went to Birmingham so a lot of those people went to Birmingham and they went to other places where they were still producing steel.”
Workers in the pipe foundries lived in the working-class area of west Anniston, and the owners of these foundries lived in the upper-class area of east Anniston, although most historical documents tend to refer to the city of Anniston as a whole.
“Wellborn’s really a more middle-class, working-class neighborhood,” Amerson said. “Folks who went out and had a job, they used their hands and their back to accomplish their job every day.”
In a 1947 edition of The Anniston Star, U.S. Pipe and Foundry was referred to as the “backbone of Anniston” in the 1900s. At that time, the plant employed 700 men and women and dispatched eight to 10 freight cars of pipe each day.
By the 1940s, there were about 13 foundries in the western region of Anniston that produced primarily soil pipe; these foundries remained strong well into the 1980s.
“There were smokestacks aplenty,” O’Dell said.
AOD started by building tanks in WWII and now also rebuilds and repairs Stryker infantry vehicles returning from Iraq.
The depot opened with four employees in 1941 as an ordnance depot, but employment numbers skyrocketed to 4,339 in 1942 because of the war.
Both the depot and the pipe foundries were the core of livelihood for the people of Wellborn, and as the pipe foundries went out of business, the depot also underwent a great deal of layoffs.
It was reported in 2004 that the depot provided nearly 18,000 jobs directly and indirectly while adding more than $1 billion to the local economy.
The depot currently employs about 5,500, down from the 6,000 it had at its peak in 2002.
Though the depot continues to be one of the area’s largest employers, fewer positions there mean fewer job opportunities for Wellborn residents.
“One of the greatest assets or strengths of our community is that we’re resilient and we make do with living,” O’Dell said. “We’re good at making do.”