Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of the top 10 local stories of 2011.
In a year that saw a lot of historic firsts for the Cullman Area — some good; some bad; some subject to your point of view — the 30th iteration of the city’s Oktoberfest celebration came as a sort of collective release from the tragedies, frustrations and anticipation of things to come that the first 10 months of 2011 had produced.
And, in the process, Oktoberfest took on a historic quality of its own.
This year’s event, rooted as always in Cullman’s traditional German heritage, followed a lot of change — change that itself was the product both of public will, and of nature’s destructive force.
Known for years as one of the world’s only “dry” Oktoberfests — an anomalous distinction among German festivals that, by tradition, feature beer as a celebratory cornerstone — Cullman’s 2011 Oktoberfest made room for beer, after residents of Cullman made room for alcohol sales by referendum in the November 2010 general election.
The early-October event followed closely on the heels of an aggressive summer-long campaign by city officials and downtown merchants to drive visitors back into Cullman’s historic block-grid core. That effort marked city leaders’ response to the devastation caused by a late-April tornado that altered the town’s footprint, destroyed businesses and left swaths of the city nearly vacant, save for the foreboding skeletons of ruined and demolished buildings.
According to Oktoberfest organizers, the strategy outlined for this year’s celebration — coupled with extraordinary circumstances that perhaps had visitors primed for a good party — drove attendance far beyond anything the decades-old annual tradition had ever seen.
There were no official attendance numbers for the week-long, multiple-site event, but the ticketed Biergarten area admitted more than 6,000 people. Oktoberfest board chairman Ernest Hauk said the Biergarten traffic, positioned close beside the bulk of the festival’s alcohol-free activities in the city’s warehouse district, served as a jumping-off point — or, perhaps, a destination — to and from everything the 2011 celebration had to offer, whether or not beer was involved in all of it.
The Oktoberfest committee, a independently-run and funded board that plans the yearly event, is expecting the reborn festival to grow in scope and popularity next year and in years to come. There’s talk of a possible collaboration with the City of Cullman, and perhaps Cullman County, to infuse next year’s festival with more money, more activities and even better organization.
Not every year will be like 2011 — there likely won’t be a duplicate of the losses and emotions evinced by last spring’s tornado, a community-wide injury that this year’s Oktoberfest did something to help heal. But Cullman’s Oktoberfest, a celebration that in many ways embodies much of what’s unique about this historically German Catholic community in the heart of the Deep South, is positioned to offer fall visitors an experience that can’t be found anywhere else.
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.