When Cullman city leaders decided to build a farmer’s market in 2006, they wanted to build something befitting the city and county’s reputation as the Number One Agriculture Community in Alabama.
According to Manager Jimmy Simms, they could have built a simple pole-frame building, but "their vision went beyond that."
"You only have to see Cullman’s Festhalle Market Platz to get that ‘Oh My!’ feeling," Simms explained.
And the large structure does often make first time visitors take a deep breath!
The timber wrights who built the magnificent structure believe it is the largest timber frame building in Alabama, with the open span market measuring 152 feet by 42 feet and standing three stories tall at 28 feet from the floor to the ridge of the simulated European clay-style metal roof.
And city leaders wanted to make certain the farmers had ample customers who would flock to the Market because of ease of parking and easy accessibility.
So they choose to locate Festhalle within close walking distance of the downtown business district (it is surrounded by eclectic shops in addition to the usual downtown commerce) as well as the Cullman County Museum, L&N Railroad Depot and the Depot Park.
"The Market was designed to provide area farmers a venue for marketing their fresh, home-grown produce, while at the same time providing a multi-purpose pavilion for an assortment of events ranging from community concerts to the annual Octoberfest celebration," Simms explained.
The Market features 32 vendor spaces, with spaces renting for $10 a day or for the entire 24 week season for $350. By the first week in April, already 22 spots had been rented for the entire season! (The building can also be rented for a nominal fee by other organizations when it’s not in use as the Farmer’s Market.)
But where did the Market get its unusual name?
Simms explained more than 220 names were submitted during a "name the market" contest in early 2007.
Simms said, "The mayor and council chose to go with a name symbolic of Cullman’s rich German heritage. Festhalle, in Germany, refers to a pavilion where festivals and other community events are held. Market was added for obvious reasons, since the primary function of the Festhalle Market Platz is to provide a venue for Cullman County farmers to sell their fresh, home-grown produce. Platz, again, is German for ‘gathering place.’"
Currently, the Market is open on Thursdays where local farmers can sell bedding plants they grow.
The official opening of this year’s market season will begin with everyone invited to "Paint the Town Red" during the Strawberry Days May 15-16 from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.
A press release noted that weekend features "in addition to delicious Cullman County strawberries and some of the finest home-grown produce found anywhere in North Alabama, other activities include a 5K Strawberry Run beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday; a classic car show, tractor show and crafts." (Visit www.cullman city.org.)
There will also be a Strawberry Cook-Off sponsored by the Cullman County Farm-City Committee with adults and youth divisions (for more information check out www.cullmanfarmcity.org).
Other events include a free guided-walking tour of churches, sponsored by the Cullman County Museum, and an art show, pet parade, wagon rides, children’s games, pony rides, food vendors, giveaways for the kids and live entertainment.
Friday, May 15th, will be Senior Day and the Commission on Aging is asking participants at its senior centers throughout the county to have their weekly Congregational Singing and other activities at the Market. There will be fun activities like a cake walk in addition to all the fresh produce that will be available.
Downtown merchants will also be "painting the town red" with sales and specials including in-store prizes and drawings.
Regular Market times will then begin with Festhalle open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m. Festhalle is easily accessible at the corner of First Avenue and Arnold Street Northeast just off Highway 31.
"The Market features several other special events throughout the season including cooking demonstrations featuring local chefs, a Tomato Week in July, Watermelon Testing Day in late July or early August, period demonstrations like blacksmithing, candlemaking, canning, flower-arranging, beekeeping, master gardener clinics and musical entertainment featuring everything from "line dancers to shade tree ‘pickers,’" Simms explained.
But the farmers and their home-grown produce are by far the stars of the Market.
Simms continued, "We’ve had everything from beans to Brussels sprouts, fried pies to sunflowers. Festhalle Market provides anything and everything found in traditional home gardens and then some, including exotic varieties of cucumbers, all assortments of pepper from sweet to five-alarm-hot, heirloom tomatoes in shades from yellow to purple, all varieties of herbs and we’ve even had a sweet potato in the shape of a duck!"
Simms was born in Tennessee and was the grandson of a sharecropper. He grew up on the farm and became the first member of his family to graduate college.
Folks may remember Simms as working with "everything from a community shopper to serving as editor of the Cullman Times" during his 31 years utilizing his degree in journalism.
He was in his 23rd year with the Cullman Times in December 2006 when the City of Cullman asked him to come to work as an administrative assistant whose main responsibility would be management of the city’s new farmer’s market.
"It wasn’t a hard decision to make. I accepted the job and it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I truly love working with the farmers and the folks in this community, which adopted me and my family many years ago," he said.
Simms noted community support for the Market has been "overwhelming as has the generous contributions of local service and civic organizations like the Cullman Kiwanis Club, Cullman Lions Club, Rotary, Farmers Federation and others."
Simms concluded, speaking on behalf of himself, the city and the local farmers, "We thank everybody for ‘Buying Fresh, Buying Local.’ Thank you for your support of the Market the past two years and we’re looking forward to another successful market season in 2009."
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.