With German roots and Bible Belt values, the north Alabama town of Cullman marked Oktoberfest for decades with oompah music, lederhosen and bratwurst, but no beer. Now the party long billed as the world's only dry Oktoberfest is finally going wet.
Organizers tapped a keg for the first time Monday at Cullman's Oktoberfest, ending an autumn prohibition in a town of 14,000 that had banned alcohol sales outright until church leaders lost that fight last fall.
Hundreds of people sipped beer and cheered at a stein-hoisting contest Monday night. A blocked-off downtown street was full of people enjoying $4 drafts; a few men wore traditional German pants and socks; couples washed down bratwurst and spicy pretzels with brew.
In a compromise aimed partly at helping ease the concerns of townspeople who worried about adding booze to the party, there was still an alcohol-free side to the celebration located about 50 yards away under a big, open shed. There, children did "The Chicken Dance" and cans of Pepsi sat on mostly empty tables; the crowd on the dry side was less than half as large as the crowd on the wet side.
The chairman of the Oktoberfest committee, Ernest Hauk, expects the entire event to only get bigger now that there's a biergarten.
"I think once people get over being worried about who's going to see them drinking ... it will just grow and grow," said Hauk.
Finally able to have a drink at Oktoberfest, Jason Hicks enjoyed a beer with his wife Ashley as German music played in the background. They didn't used to come.
"Before it was just two old guys dancing," said Hicks, 30. "It's not about the beer now, but it adds something."
"It's fun," said his 27-year-old wife.
Located about 50 miles north of Birmingham, Cullman was founded in 1873 by John Gottfried Cullmann (the town eventually lost an "n"), a German who came to America after the Civil War and picked out the area's rolling hills as a spot for immigrant settlers. The city was laid out in squares with unusually wide streets, a design Cullmann imported from Europe.
The city had its first Oktoberfest in 1977, when a church staged the event for its 100th anniversary celebration, but beer was always verboten because alcohol sales were illegal in Cullman County. In place of alcohol, revelers drank root beer and organizers came up with their own sparkling apple cider, Oktoberzest.
Cullman's Oktoberfest added events like a car show and a beauty pageant through the years to help lure a crowd, but the event stayed small. In Germany, Oktoberfest means tens of thousands of people downing beers in giant tents. In Cullman, the big tradition was hay bales painted to resemble a German man and woman.
Everything changed late last year, when voters decided to legalize alcohol sales in the city despite the opposition of some local church leaders. As Hauk put it: "Hell froze over on Nov. 2."
It took months for city leaders to write laws governing sales, but stores finally began selling alcohol in February. That allowed time for Hauk and other leaders to add beer to the event.
A Birmingham-based beer distributor signed on as a sponsor and a local food company, Smith Farms, came on board to operate the beer-selling operation in a brick building near the shed where the dry Oktoberfest always was held.
Wearing leather shorts, a plaid shirt and a German-style hat, Smith Farms owner Rodger Turner looked out over the first-night crowd with a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. He's got a lot of beer to get rid of before Oktoberfest ends Saturday.
"I better sell it all," he said.
That may not be a problem. Some at Oktoberfest wore T-shirts that said: "Dreams Really Do Come True: Beer in Cullman."