Tell us something we don’t know.
Oxford’s population has grown more in the last two decades than it did in the first 15 decades of the city’s existence as an incorporated town. It’s a staggering, overwhelming confirmation of the obvious.
What more proof is needed that Calhoun County’s fastest-growing city — which is celebrating its 150th anniversary — is one of this state’s untold stories of expansion and, alas, the unavoidable growing pains that comes along?
In the early 1850s, only 200 or so Alabamians lived in then-Benton County’s southernmost town. By the 1880s, the city’s post-Reconstruction growth had begun; two railroad lines serviced the city, the downtown was adding storefronts, and the population had risen to nearly 800.
By the turn of the century, Oxford’s population had topped four figures, reaching 1,372. (Oxanna, that short-lived, odd civic rival wedged between Oxford and Anniston, claimed nearly 1,200 that same year.)
And there Oxford’s population stayed, more or less. Each decade brought a few hundred additions. There was no sustained pre- or post-war boom for either world war. There was no massive influx of immigrants or specialized workers such as those European iron workers who boosted Anniston’s 19th-century population.
Oxford remained Oxford: Small, proud, its cornerstone families often having generation after generation who were born in Oxford, lived in Oxford, worked in Oxford, and buried in Oxford. Population growth was consistent, yet underwhelming. For Southerners who reveled in a bucolic, small-town lifestyle in which change happened as often as blizzards, that wasn’t a bad thing.
In 1960, Oxford had 3,603 residents.
In 1970, Oxford had 4,361 residents.
Between ’70 and ’90, the city added 5,001 residents.
In 2008, Oxford’s population was an estimated 20,622, the U.S. Census Bureau says. (That figure will assuredly rise when new Census data is released later this year. It’s also a virtual lock that Mayor Leon Smith’s town will pass Anniston and become Calhoun County’s most populated city in the near future.)
All this means — if you’re a number-cruncher — that Oxford’s ballooning population has grown by 11,260 since 1990, when the city’s population was only 9,362.
In the statistical sense, that is the Oxford of today. A city literally bursting at the seams thanks to two decades — and counting — in which residents flocked to the city for its public schools, its retail development, its interstate access and its suburban way of life.
As Anniston’s population has dissipated like water dripping from a leaky faucet, Oxford has rightly — and profitably — taken advantage of the opportunity. No fault there.
Give credit to Smith if you want. Point a finger at Interstate 20 if you prefer. Blame Anniston’s well-chronicled ailments if you like. I tend to think it’s a combination of those three; remove any of them — if Smith had never been elected, if the interstate hadn’t been built through Oxford, if Anniston’s woes were truncated — and Oxford’s meteoric rise would have been stunted.
Either way, Oxford’s assumption to Calhoun County’s population throne is one of the overriding stories of local life during the last 20 years.
It makes for perfect timing since the city’s 150th anniversary is reaching full steam this summer. It also begs this question: Where will Oxford be at its 200th anniversary?
I’ve often wondered what would have happened had one of Oxford’s best success stories, the birth of Oxford College in the 1870s, not perished along with John Dodson, the school’s president. Imagine if the college had become a permanent four-year university to twin with Jacksonville State on the county’s northern end.
Oxford might look a lot different today.
Politics aside, the next 50 years will undoubtedly bring more alterations since there seems to be no stop sign for expansion. Already, it’s not uncommon to hear long-time Oxfordites bemoan the Old vs. the New — natives vs. interlopers who’ve moved in. It’s no secret that a few in Oxford wish the old Oxford would return.
It’s clear that Oxford’s leadership between now and the 200th anniversary — that’s in 2060 — will face crucial decisions. There’s too much reliance on service-industry jobs. (The Census says only 18 percent of Oxford residents aged 25 and older hold bachelor’s degrees or higher.) Ensuring continued quality in a school system that’s growing with lightning speed is a must. Wise spending of bloated coffers that other cities envy is a top priority.
In essence, what is Oxford’s master plan? Is it more of the same, or something radically different? What are leaders’ long-range goals for the future generations?
If anything, Oxford has seen that its future is much different than its past. If recent years are any indication, getting to that future is going to be one heck of a ride.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor.