- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

CULLMAN, Ala. — 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 brats 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 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,” he said.

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 Mr. Hicks, 30. “It’s not about the beer now, but it adds something.”

Located about 50 miles north of Birmingham, Cullman was founded in 1873 by John Gottfried Cullmann, 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 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. With the measure backed by local business interests, residents signed off on something they had shot down several times before, with some saying it was simply time for the town to move forward.

It took months for city leaders to write laws governing sales, but stores finally began selling alcohol in February.



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