Claris and Eurenea Clemmons in their strawberry field.
Cullman Strawberry Festival May 9-10
The early German settlers called strawberries "erdbeeren," or literally "earth berry." Andrew Kessler may have brought the first strawberry plants to Cullman in 1880. In 1886, during a ball and picnic to commemorate the founding of Cullman, John Cullmann toasted the recent discovery of coal, the exploration for oil and the hoped-for arrival of an east-west railroad along with the success of local ventures in wine, strawberries and cotton production. The success with wine was short-lived due to a disease problem that still prevents most European wine grapes from growing in our area. However, first cotton and later strawberry production took off in a big way. Cullman County became a leader in both commodities.
Large scale strawberry production had to wait on a means of refrigeration to allow for distant shipping via rail cars. By 1936, Cullman was harvesting 2,200 acres of strawberries and had become the strawberry-producing capital of Alabama - if not the entire South. This acreage held steady until World War II which caused a labor shortage and the acreage fell to about 500. By 1947, acreage started to climb back up to near 1,000 acres and never got above that level again.
During the strawberry "heyday," Cullman held a very large annual strawberry festival that brought folks from all over north Alabama to celebrate the harvest season each spring. Eventually acreage began to fall and the strawberry festival was stopped. This time a combination of factors likely led to the industry’s decline: competition from Florida, labor and the rise of the poultry industry which provided a more secure income stream with less risk.
Several years ago, local officials decided to resurrect the Cullman Strawberry Festival. Even though we will likely never have the large acreages we once grew, we do have several local producers who grow strawberries for local sales. This winter has been very cold, but most area growers cover their plants with a blanket-like material that protects the plants fairly well. The crop potential looks good and, barring any late freezes, they should harvest a good crop of the sweet "erdbeerens."
This year’s festival will take place May 9-10 and will be held at the Festhalle Market Platz-Farmers Market in downtown Cullman near the railroad line that once shipped thousands of crates of berries annually. The festival plays host to many activities including a wonderful assortment of local artisans selling their wares at an arts and crafts event in Depot Park across from the farmers market. The first day features an antique tractor show, live music and plenty of locally grown strawberries in addition to the arts and crafts. The Cullman County Museum will be open and there will be historic tours given of old downtown Cullman. On Saturday, there will all the same activities plus a 5- and 10-K run, and a classic car show at Depot Park.
If you are close enough for a drive to Cullman, come and enjoy the festival and take home some sweet local berries. If you live a little too far away, try to find some local strawberries before the season passes you by. You may visit this website to find area farms and markets: http://www.fma.alabama.gov. To get more details about the Cullman Strawberry Festival, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CullmanStrawberryfest.
Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.