Welcome to Wellborn.
If all of this community just west of Anniston were a bow, then its two schools would be the knot that ties everything together.
Wellborn residents all seem to be cut from the same cloth — a collection of gritty, proud, tough, traditional, hard-working, blue-collar neighbors — and the schools are where all those qualities come together.
“School is the heart of the community,” said Wellborn Elementary School principal Doug O’Dell. “It’s a community that works hard for everything they have. It’s a proud place to be — a good place to raise a family.”
Most everyone in Wellborn grew up here and never moved, or they moved but were never satisfied until they came back. It’s almost as though you have to be from Wellborn to understand it.
For example, when school officials decided last year that it was time for their struggling football team to return to its glory days, they brought home one of their own — former Hueytown head coach and 1987 Wellborn High School graduate, Jeff Smith.
As the kickoff of its PLACES: Profiles of the Communities We Call Home series, The Anniston Star, over the course of the next couple of weeks, is profiling the Wellborn community. As part of this project, students from the University of Alabama/Anniston Star Masters in Community Journalism Fellows, along with Star staffers, have spent several weeks interviewing Wellborn residents to learn about the community.
They learned that when you’re around Wellborn folks, you’d better get used to hearing words like pride and toughness. When it comes to defining and defending what it means to live in Wellborn, these Panthers ask for no sympathy, and they make no apologies about who they are.
“One thing about this community, it’s hard to leave,” said O’Dell, who grew up in Wellborn, married the daughter of his high school principal, sends his kids to Wellborn, and lives next to his in-laws. “I got the greatest job. I feel like Santa Claus working at the North Pole. I wake up, and I’m at work.”
Part of unincorporated Calhoun County, Wellborn is tucked neatly in a corner west of Anniston and north of Oxford, and is interrupted abruptly by the Anniston Army Depot property. Its unofficial boundaries stretch from Clydesdale Avenue west to Mudd Street at the western edge of Calhoun County. To the north, it touches Saks, Alexandria and Ohatchee.
The community was formed in 1954 when Eulaton and Mechanicsville junior high schools combined. The new high school was named after Walter E. Wellborn, who had served many years on the county school board. Thankful, Eulaton and Mechanicsville schools later joined to make Wellborn Elementary.
Back then, most residents worked in pipe shops and many lived in company houses owned by Anniston Foundry. Wellborn residents lived, worked and went to school in one community.
That changed in the 1960s when plastic overtook metal as the material of choice for piping. The factories closed and many people had to find jobs elsewhere.
The dynamics of Wellborn further changed with the integration of the school system in the late ’60s and again in 2002 when the city of Oxford annexed Coldwater and Bynum — taking away swaths of unincorporated Wellborn. The school enrollment shrank to fewer than half its one-time maximum of 1,300, and, because the community is bordered on all sides, there’s no room to grow.
Those factors have led to deficiencies in money (state funding is based on enrollment); deficiencies in residential expansion as Wellborn has seen few new homes in recent years; and deficiencies in economic development and overall growth.
The estimated home value in the 36201 zip code where Wellborn is located was $68,591 in 2008, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The estimated home value was $99,800 for the county that year and $121,500 for the state.
The average income for the 36201 zip code was $24,000 in 2004, a little more than half the state average that year of $42,000.
Despite those indicators, there have been no deficiencies in pride. Remind a Wellborn resident of those facts, and they’ll remind you they just won the 1A-4A state wrestling championship for the fourth time out of the last five years. They’ll tell you that the high school also boasts the only full-fledged art program in the county school system. They’ll point out that Wellborn Elementary has an outdoor classroom built in 2007 that includes a waterfall, an amphitheater, a weather station and a storybook garden — a tribute to former teachers Wanda McGhee and Elizabeth Russ.
They’ll point to the National Wildlife Association-certified school playground that was built by the community when more than 100 residents — parents, teachers, school supporters and alumni — showed up one morning last fall to landscape the schools’ grounds.
Even with such displays of affection for the school, the community spirit is most visible on Friday nights in the fall. Wellborn folks blanket The Hill (the football stadium’s home side) with energetic support for their Panthers. They readily admit that sports have kept many young Wellborn men out of jail or worse, and that the toughness of the community carries over to the football field.
“Athletics has been a savior for our community,” O’Dell said. “There’s not another community that lives and dies for a football team like the one that sits on that hill.”
Down to business
Since the departure of the factories, most Wellborn residents work and shop outside the community in nearby cities. One of the primary employers for Wellborn residents is the Anniston Army Depot, which refurbishes tanks and other large weaponry for the military.
Residents say it’s a job that meets all of the demands of the average Wellborn resident — the pay is decent, it puts calluses on your hands and it’s technically still inside the boundaries of Panther territory.
While they can’t fill the void that was left by the industrial plants, several small businesses have appeared in the absence of the pipe shops, including fast food restaurants, storage facilities, an auto trim shop, a barber shop, the fish hatchery, a couple gas stations and a Dollar General store, among others.
Most of them are owned and/or operated by people who grew up and continue to live in Wellborn.
They speak to Wellborn’s success stories — those Wellborn natives who have become prominent members of the broader Calhoun County community. Among them are Wayne Reaves, owner of several area Jack’s restaurants, County Commissioner Eli Henderson, County Commissioner Rudy Abbott, Anniston Middle School Principal Lynwood Hawkins, Anniston City Councilman David Dawson, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, Oxford Elementary School Principal Debbie Nelson and County Extension Coordinator David West.
At the end of the day, it always comes back to the people.
People who’d rather spend Saturday morning fishing for bass than spend Saturday night rubbing shoulders with high-society types.
People like Janice Vera, who said she’s not bothered when coworkers at Alabama Power kid her that Wellborn is a community of rednecks.
People like Tim Roszell, who has owned a business in Wellborn for almost 30 years and never once considered going anywhere else.
People like Kristy Farmer, who owns the Peerless Grille in Anniston and occasionally feeds the Wellborn football team, coaches and families.
People like William Tippins, who’s been a board member on the Wellborn Baseball for Youth for four years and is a community leader and school supporter.
People like Jeff Woodard, who owns Woodard Grading and donates a good bit of his services to the schools.
People like principal O’Dell whose folks moved away when he was a child, but would drive hours back to Wellborn every Friday night to support the Panther football team.
For them, Wellborn is more than a place to live.
This place is home.