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May 5, 2013

Live music, crafts: Strawberry Fest next weekend

CULLMAN — Cullman’s oldest festival came back to life a few years ago, and organizers hope the new-and-improved Strawberry Fest can draw its biggest crowd yet next weekend with an expanded line-up of musical acts.

Centered at Festhalle Market Platz at the corner of Arnold Street and First Avenue NE in downtown, the festival will bring live music, a classic car show, 5K run, and craft and food vendors into downtown for the annual kickoff of Spring. And, of course, fresh strawberries.

Organizers are betting big on live music this year, and have booked acts that cover genres ranging from bluegrass to rock ‘n roll, with hopes of casting as wide a net as possible. Bands this year include Three on a String, “Mean Mary” James, Roy Crawford, The Hit Men and several others.

“We’re very excited, and this is our biggest musical line-up yet,” organizer Elaine Fuller said. “We want to evolve the festival to highlight the community, and of course the fresh strawberries and local produce grown by Cullman County farmers. But with the music this year, we should have whatever type folks want to hear. It will all be there, plus its a family-friendly event.”

Though this was set to be the first Strawberry Fest to feature alcohol sales, the event will remain “dry” for at least another year, as the proposed vendor backed out. Fuller said organizers hope to add alcohol sales to some aspects of the festival in 2014.

“That is something we’re looking at for next year,” she said.

The festival began more than 100 years ago, as Cullman County was a huge strawberry exporter in the early-to-mid 1900s. The event was started as a way to honor that heritage. It was first held in 1905 under the moniker of the Strawberry Jubilee, and grew into a very popular event in the 1930s-1950s.

But, once shipments started falling off due to shipping costs in the 1950s, many farmers diversified and Cullman’s reputation as a major player in the strawberry business faded. With the strawberries, so went the festival.

“Cullman started growing massive crops of strawberries, and they were shipped via train all over the United States,” Fuller said. “Cullman County strawberries were even listed on menus in fancy restaurants in cities like New York and Chicago, for a short time. They were considered a delicacy, because they were so sweet. But, in the 1950s, labor got so expensive they couldn’t afford to ship by train, so  farmers started scaling back.”

But, during those brief few decades, Fuller said the festival was one of the biggest in the region.

“Every school child in Cullman County marched in the Strawberry Fest parade, and they had a king and queen, a ball and big, beautiful floats in the parade,” she said. “But, in the 1950s it stopped, as the war started and the strawberry crops scaled down.”

The festival lay dormant for decades, until Cullman County organizers restarted it as a roving festival several years ago, before disbanding it once again.

Approximately five years ago the Cullman Oktoberfest Board took the reins, and the festival has grown to draw thousands of people to the city and county. Last year’s event topped out at approximately 10,000 people, and Fuller said she expects even bigger crowds this year.

“If the weather holds up, we think this can be one of the biggest Strawberry Fests yet, absolutely,” she said.

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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