Please welcome guest author Sharon Schuler Kreps. Kreps is an author and newspaper columnist who lives in Cullman, AL. She writes much of the published work on that town’s Colonel Cullmann re-enactment. Larry Rowlette has been studying and portraying Colonel John G. Cullmann, the founding father of Cullman, since the year 2000. He appears as The Colonel during annual Oktoberfest celebrations and in many other events throughout the year in Cullman and all around north Alabama. In his non-Colonel life, Rowlette is an Electrical Engineer and works as an Engineering Manager with a private defense contract firm in Huntsville, AL.
Over the years, Larry Rowlette has been asked how he became The Colonel, yet instead of answering the question, he’d normally smile, wink or ask the person to dance. Truth is, Rowlette’s transformation into The Colonel is a long story, and one that has remained somewhat a mystery… until now.
“It all started years ago with Mrs. Elaine Fuller, Curator of the Cullman County Museum,” Rowlette smiled. “She regularly attended tourism events around Alabama and had noticed a common theme – local citizens portraying people from area history, specifically the founders or leaders of the towns and cities. She fell in love with the idea and wanted to do it here in Cullman as well.”
After several discussions with the Oktoberfest Committee, the movement to have an actual Colonel Cullmann for Cullman, AL was born and the search for such a person soon began. It was the spring of 1999.
One year later, a Colonel Cullmann had still not been selected because no one fitting the description nor the desired persona had been found. One afternoon Pastor Bob Kurtz, President of the Oktoberfest Committee and Sr. Pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Church, indicated he had someone in mind that may be interested in the Col. Cullmann portrayal. The man Kurtz was talking about was Larry Rowlette, a local resident and member of the church.
“Kurtz invited Fuller to a Fourth of July presentation given by the members of St. John’s Church,” Rowlette explained. “Mrs. Fuller was a little leery, but she drove out to Ava Marie Grotto in Cullman, where the presentation was held, and attended. She had gone to secretly watch me as I delivered a speech as James Madison,” he chuckled. “She was impressed and when the program was over, she introduced herself to me and explained her idea of me portraying Colonel Johann Cullmann.”
Rowlette was more than willing to support the community, and there was no doubt in his mind he would accept the position of Colonel Cullmann. But because he is also a prankster, he wanted to have a little fun with Mrs. Fuller.
“I acted a little confused, and then told her I would have to think about it,” Rowlette said, grinning like a mule eating corn. “I thanked her for the consideration, turned and then took two or three steps away from her. Then I turned back around and said, ‘Okay, I have thought about it. I’ll do it,’ and gave her a big ole smile.”
From that point on, things happened fast. Rowlette was told the portrayal was to be kept strictly confidential. Then he received a new suit of clothes made in the late 1800’s style. An old walking cane was purchased that matched the cane the Colonel held in the old photographs of him. Before long, Rowlette found himself completely transformed into the old gentleman.
A keynote speech was prepared for the Oktoberfest 2000 opening ceremonies. It was written as if Colonel Cullmann had risen from the grave just to attend the festival and talk to his people. It told of his life from his birth on July 2nd 1823 in Frankweiler, Germany (Bavaria), to his death in December 3rd 1895 in Cullman, Alabama. It described the sacrifices he made, as well as the sacrifices of the people who settled in Cullman with him.
It spoke of the travels and hardships he personally endured and also about his many accomplishments during his lifetime. Rowlette delivered the speech while standing next to a statue of Colonel Cullmann. Once the speech had ended, the crowd erupted with applause and Colonel Cullmann 2000 was born.
Originally intended as a once a year Oktoberfest portrayal, Colonel Cullmann 2000 quickly became an opportunity for Rowlette to portray our founder throughout the whole year. Dressed as the Colonel, he has spoken to civic groups all across the region, addressed local and state leadership and talks to both kindergarten all the way through high school senior classes throughout the county.
“I enjoy spreading the message of Heritage, Tradition, and Values everywhere I go,” Rowlette stated. “I also try to live by those same words, because it gives me something to work toward – Honoring the Heritage, speaking and promoting the Tradition, and living the Values each day.”
Colonel Cullmann participated in two revolutions against ruling parties in Bavaria while attempting to create a democratic government, and ended up having to leave the country or risk being imprisoned. He left his homeland Bavaria, his wife and three children and headed for America. He arrived in the United States in 1866, when he was 43 years old.
Upon arriving in the United States, he traveled around and began formulating a plan to get his family and friends to this new and wonderful country. Once he made it to North Alabama, he wrote in his letters to Josephine, his wife, that it felt like home.
At the time he worked for the Louisville – Nashville Railroad as a Land Agent. It was his job to get settlers to the area along the railroad as it extended south through Alabama. In other words, his job aligned with exactly what he wanted in his personal life…to find a place his family and friends could settle down, live and call home.
Colonel Cullmann advertised in newspapers all over this country, as well as in Bavaria and throughout Europe. His ads spoke of this wonderful place he had found in North Alabama to settle down. He described it as a place where you could own land and live as free men and women.
“After traveling around the country and arriving in North Alabama the impression was made upon my mind that if this area was filled up with good farmers it would be the garden spot of America. I found here all that I had been looking for, all that I regarded as necessary to make good homes: there was here combined these things to an extent not equaled by any other place I had seen,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1877.
As a result of Colonel Cullmann’s hard work, North Alabama’s Cullman became a city in March 1875. Two years later, state government voted to accept Cullman as a county in the state of Alabama. Colonel Cullmann was touched to have the area named in his honor. The second ‘n’ in the name was dropped for clarity.
The residents tried to get Colonel Cullmann to preside as the first mayor, but he promptly rejected the idea because he felt he had too much influence over the people in the area. Besides, he really wanted to spend his time bringing more people to this country, which is exactly what he did. Over his lifetime, he was responsible for bringing more than 100,000 people to the United States. Certainly not all settled in Cullman, or even in North Alabama, but he still felt directly responsible for their well-being and worked to stay in contact with them and help them make their start in this new country.
“When Laura Axlerod and Greg Richter approached me about making a short film about Becoming Colonel Cullmann, it seemed to me another opportunity to spread the word about Cullman,” Rowlette explained. “I readily agreed and looked forward to the project. Then, before I knew it, the two were at my house with all sorts of cameras and equipment set up and pointed right at me. I must have answered a hundred questions or more that day,” he belly laughed. “The first question they asked me was, ‘Why continue to be the Colonel if you’re not from Cullman and don’t live in Cullman anymore?’”
“I was born and raised in Nashville, TN, moved to Cullman in 1987 and then moved from Cullman to Decatur, Alabama in 2007 because I needed to get a little closer to where I work—Huntsville,” said Rowlette. “When people found out I was thinking about moving, they said they would allow me to move as long as I continued to be The Colonel. For me it was simple…I had no plans to ever stop portraying The Colonel; there were just way too many perks!”
So, why does Rowlette portray the founder of a city in which he was not born and a place he no longer lives?
“Because I am The Colonel, regardless of where I live,” Rowlette practically sang. “I consider Cullman to be home. I continue because the people of Cullman ask me to. When I walk through town and hear a little child say to his Mom or Dad, ‘That’s Colonel Cullmann’, it melts my heart. Talk about losing my identity? Let’s just say, if I ever stopped portraying Colonel Cullmann, that’s when I would lose my identity. The Colonel has become a part of who I am.”
For more information about filmmakers Laura Axelrod and Greg Richter’s documentary, Becoming Colonel Cullmann, please visit the official Becoming Colonel Cullmann website. To follow Laura Axelrod’s film career, go to www.lauraaxelrod.com. Laura Axelrod, Greg Richter, Colonel Cullmann and the film Becoming Colonel Cullmann can all be followed on Twitter and Facebook as well.