More than 6 million visitors will flock to Baldwin County’s beaches in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach this year, traveling along congested roadways before staying in towering condos and visiting entertainment parks and shopping centers.
But it’s doubtful that many – perhaps, any? – will make a 15-minute detour from the sugar-white sand beaches and veer east to scrappy Elberta. Chances are, most have never even heard of the small town founded 111 years ago that is known more for its annual sausage festivals and the uniquely named “Roadkill Cafe.”
Elberta, says Mayor Jim Hamby, has usually been just a red light on the way to somewhere else.
That’s about to change. The town – Elberta has never called itself a “city” – is about to make a splash. Work crews are in the final stages of transforming the town’s middle school into its first-ever high school.
The new school welcomes ninth-graders for the first time on Aug. 21. “Everyone is excited,” said Branton Bailey, the principal at the new high school. “It’s a big deal.”
‘Sense of identity’
Indeed, Elberta is energized as the day nears. The opening comes at a time when, nationwide, small towns struggle to stay relevant, keeping intact the schools that are part of its identity, if not its major employer.
In Alabama, the opening of a new high school also brings excitement about new sports teams in a football-crazed state. The new Elberta high school football team will host its first game, a junior varsity competition, against Daphne High School on Sept. 5.
A community-wide pep rally is expected to take place sometime before then, and the prospects of a newborn “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere has Hamby downright giddy. “It really creates a sense of identity for the town,” said Hamby, who was elected mayor of Elberta in November after serving on the town council for over nine years. “It will be so cool to get off work here at town hall, go downtown to MJ’s restaurant or wherever and get something to eat and then go down to watch a football game in my hometown. That is going to be really neat to have.”
Hamby calls himself the “new kid on the block,” even though he’s been living in the town for over a quarter-century. Elberta is a close-knit community, he said, and it’s not uncommon to run into “fifth generation” folks who can tell of the town’s history and lore.
That community passion is perhaps no different than other small towns in Alabama – or in the U.S., for that matter. But what makes Elberta unique is its geography, and its potential for explosive growth. The town is located a short drive to some of the state’s hottest boom cities: Foley, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach.
In fact, the growth in Foley led to the demand for a new high school in Elberta. For generations, Elberta’s youth attended Foley High School. But the school is overcrowded, and is now coping with the largest enrollment of any high school in Alabama.
A high school for Elberta has loomed as a possibility dating back to the 1990s. But nothing materialized, and as recently as 2015, the town’s voters joined others in Baldwin County to overwhelmingly reject a property tax that would have paid for a sweeping campaign of school construction and expansion.
“The mentality was, ‘Yeah, sure we’ll pay more taxes and they still won’t give us a school,'” said Hamby. “What is happening now is we’re getting a new school and not having to pay more taxes. It’s really an inverse.”
The Baldwin County school system, under the direction of Superintendent Eddie Tyler, has been pushing a “pay-as-you-go” program aimed at addressing the rapid enrollment climb. Baldwin school system is the third largest in Alabama, with more than 31,000 students in 45 campuses.
The first phase of projects was approved by the school board in late 2015, and included a $3.9 million addition to Elberta’s elementary school. The 14 new classrooms will create a K-6 school, which opens to students for the first time this fall.
Thus, the old middle school can become a junior high/high school campus, hosting grades 7-12. Starting this fall, the new Elberta High will be filled with students in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.
A second pay-as-you-go project provides an $8.5 million addition to the middle school that will house the new high school as further grades are added. For 2018-19, Elberta High School will welcome 10th-graders; in 2019-20 come 11th-graders; in 2020-21, there’s 12trh grade.
Enrollment, the first year, will be around 400 students in grades 7-9. Once the school is completely open, enrollment is anticipated around 700 students. Each class, including the inaugural freshman class, will include about 175 students.
Tyler, who was hired as the superintendent in fall of 2015, said talks about an Elberta High School were well under way in the early-to-mid-2000s, though no concrete plan ever surfaced.
By 2015, the high school emerged as a possibility. At an October school board meeting that year, town officials and community residents showed up wearing “Elberta High School” T-shirts to rally in support of the project.
“We discussed it, and felt like it would eventually be a growing area,” said Tyler. “We feel like once there is a high school opened with the ninth grade this year, it will become a rapidly growing feeder pattern.”
Elberta High will draw students in from nearby Summerdale, who have long attended high school in Foley as well. But the school’s wide geographic reach also extends to the Alabama-Florida line and includes Lillian.
It’s the first new high school in Baldwin County since Spanish Fort High School opened in 2005, about a dozen years after the city incorporated. Gulf Shores opened its high school in 1999, which was 41 years after that city incorporated.
Elberta was incorporated 65 years ago, in 1952.
“With a brand, new school being built in a city, it brings with it an air of excitement,” said Tyler, who recalls Daphne opening its high school in the late 1980s. At the time, it was the first new high school built in Baldwin County in nearly 40 years.
“We live in Alabama and south Alabama, and your football and marching bands and cheerleaders and all of those things, it just energizes a town,” said Tyler. “When you live in a house near a school and you hear a band playing, you know school is ready to start.”
‘Year of firsts’
Greg Seibert, hired to as the head football coach and the school’s athletic director in March, is also anticipating the electricity. “Win, lose or draw,” he said. “this will be a year of firsts.”
Athletics, this season, will be performed on the junior varsity level only, until the school fills out to include the upper classes. Volleyball practices have already begun, and the football team’s first official practice was Monday.
Seibert grew up in Elberta, living in the same farmhouse his great-grandfather built decades ago. His mother still lives in the house, which is located on a road named after his family.
That same road – located just a few miles north of the town limits – abuts a farm field that the mayor and other town officials covet for an entire new high school complex within the next 10 years.
For now, Seibert said he’s focused on the initial wave of students who will make up the inaugural Elberta High class.
“It’s an opportunity that not many coaches or educators get to do and that’s to begin a new program from scratch and to be the genesis of starting a high school,” said Seibert, who comes to Elberta High following a 16-year stint at Pensacola Catholic, a dozen of which he served as the team’s head football coach.
Seibert added, “This doesn’t come around very often. It’s a little bit scary to think that amount of influence this first administration, this faculty, this first coaching staff will have on the kids who walk through these doors. The first couple of years, the first couple of days. We have an opportunity to leave an indelible mark on that first group.”
‘They are Warriors’
Inside the former middle school, now called the “high school” as evident from the signage on the school’s entryway, fresh paint is being added to classroom and hallway walls.
Branton Bailey, the principal, and his wife, Ashleigh, a teacher at Elberta Middle, have personally helped with the renovation project. On weekends this past summer, the couple was often found inside the school with paintbrushes in hand.
For Branton Bailey, the opportunity to be a principal at the new high school has its roots in 1996, when he was hired as a seventh-grade history and physical education instructor at the middle school. He remained in Elberta until 2007, when he took his first assistant principal job at Foley Middle School.
His return to Elberta has brought back a rush of memories. In 1996, he met his wife, proposing to her at the middle school prom in 1997. Today, the couple has four children.
Bailey was hired as principal in the spring, and among his first responsibilities was to establish a school nickname and team colors. He handed that duty over to the future ninth-graders.
“The kids had the option to vote, and they came up with the name and the colors of black and silver,” said Bailey.
While the middle school has long been nicknamed the “Raiders” – and some of the town’s residents lobbied hard to keep the nickname for the high school – the kids chose “Warriors.”
“It’s probably been the most emotional part of this ride over the past year,” said Tyler, who was brought in to guide the process. “You had people who graduated and lived in Elberta all their lives and they are all loyal to Elberta. They felt like, ‘why should we give up Raiders?'”
Seibert, though, said the Warriors name gives the high school a fresh beginning, especially since a large number of students are coming from Summerdale.
He said, “There are no longer Elberta kids and Summerdale kids. They are only ‘Warriors.'”
In town, there are some noticeable changes ahead of the school’s opening. A new pizza restaurant, Mr. Perry’s Pizza, has opened across U.S. 98 from the elementary school. An auto parts shop relocated from a nearby strip mall to a more visible storefront, along on U.S. 98, which is the town’s main business corridor.
Mayor Hamby said he anticipates more economic benefits from the school. He said hundreds of youths, who previously ventured to Foley so they could attend school, will remain in Elberta each day.
“Those kids … they stop at the Foley stores to get gas or a hamburger or whatever,” he said. “If they get off school here in Elberta, they won’t drive to Foley to get a hamburger, and they will want to fill up their gas here in Elberta. It will really create an economic benefit.”
Elberta is a town with few businesses, though they are distinctive in that a good number of them include the town’s name – Elberta Hardware, Elberta Grocery, Elberta Pharmacy, to name just a few.
Terrell Roberts is manager of the Davis Auto Parts in Elberta, which is the only location for the family-owned auto parts store outside Mobile. The shop also has kept the town’s name on its building’s facade, “Auto & Ag Parts of Elberta.”
“It lends a little bit of ownership to the community, that this is our parts store,” said Roberts, who oversaw a move of Davis Auto Parts from a 950-square-foot spot to the new 3,700-square-foot building on U.S. 98. “This is Elberta’s parts store, even though that isn’t the name of it.”
Hamby said he’d like to see more businesses come to Elberta, particularly a German-style restaurant that would embrace the town’s heritage. The town also doesn’t have a tavern: The Social Club closed its doors not long ago, and Hamby believes it bad fortunes more to do with small-town meddling.
Once again, he anticipates the arrival of a new high school to help reverse the closures.
“The death knell to the Social Club was that the trades – the utility companies would eat breakfast there every morning, and you’d see the utility trucks there because they’d serve a manly breakfast,” said Hamby. “The guys loved to eat there. But the utility companies would get a negative response from the community, ‘Hey you guys aren’t fixing my lights, and your trucks are parked at the restaurant.’ So, several companies told their employees they couldn’t stop in there anymore, and that just sort of finished them off.”
Elberta remains a hard-toiling community, where a good number of residents work for the trades that support the condominiums and tourist attractions in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
The town, itself, has grown 12 percent since the 2010 U.S. Census, which is much more than the state’s average but is lower than the fast growth in Gulf Shores and Foley. Elberta claimed 1,679 residents in 2016.
Housing values in Elberta are lower than many of the nearby cities in coastal Alabama, and the town’s median household income of $31,190 is much lower than the state average of $43,623, not to mention Baldwin County’s $50,245.
Hamby said, “We have a lot of talented people, blue collar people. They live in Elberta and actually keep Gulf Shores and Foley … they are part of the force that keeps those folks growing.”
Said Coach Seibert: “This community is built on a great degree of hard work, a great depth of resiliency and this is a community that takes great pride in their ability to take care of themselves.”
Brooke Kaechle Kaiser, one of the owners of Kaechle Motor Company – a 72-year-old family-run business – has lived in Elberta most of her life. “This is a family-knit community. Foley is so much bigger, but there are so many larger families in this area. It’s the generations.”
Her son, Lucas, 13, will be starting his freshman year in Elberta and will be part of the inaugural class.
“It’s so nice to see this especially with my son growing up in the same school from kindergarten through senior year,” Kaiser said. “He’s kept the same friends and I’m excited for him to be able to go through high school with the same people. Not only will they be close, but hopefully their children will and so on.”