“After traveling around the country and arriving in North Alabama the impression was made upon my mind that if this country 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.” – Col. John G. Cullmann, 1877
Note: The article below was originally published by The Cullman Times in 1998 as part of a special issue commemorating Cullman’s 125th Anniversary. It is used here with The Times’ permission.
Johann Gottfried CullmannBy Stanley Johnson
There are many famous people from Alabama. But one settler to this state was overlooked until recently even though he was a remarkable man. He brought more immigrants to this country than any one individual and he founded a leading city and county in this state singlehandedly. The
adventures of this pioneer are very interesting. We hope to make this evident by what is said here.
The early life of Johann Gottfried CullmannJohn Cullmann (the Americanized version of the name) was born in Frankweiler, Canton Landau, the Rheinpfalz, Germany. At the time of his birth, Frankweiler was in the state of Bavaria. It is now in the Pfalz. He was born on July 2, 1823. His father was the geometer and teacher for Frankweiler. For over 200 years the family lived in a large home in the center of town, next to the church. His father was principal of the local school where Cullmann graduated at an early age.
This brilliant young man entered the Polytechnic Institute at Zweibrueken when he was 13. This necessitated his leaving home while still quite young. He studied civil engineering and obtained a degree similar to our junior college. He returned to Frankweiler, expecting to take the place of his father but left when he was not promised a raise from what his father had made. He had met Josephine Low at Zweibrueken and they were soon married and moved to Neustadt an der Haard, where he entered he export business and quickly became successful.
John and Josephine had four children: Theodore Gottlieb, Otto Gottfried, Maria (later Mrs. Ludwig Richard), and Alice, who died at age two. In Neustadt, John Cullmann became acquainted with many American businessmen who told him of their wonderful free country across the Atlantic, probably
planting the idea for his later immigration and colony.
Revolution and flightThe revolution of 1848 developed in the Germanic states when John Cullmann was 25 years of age. He was an enlightened young man who felt his homeland was ready for democracy. The Hambach Castle of Neustadt was the center of this revolutionary activity, and John Cullmann seems to have been thoroughly involved in it. But, the monarchy in Bavaria was saved by the intervention of the Prussian army, thus giving John Cullmann ample reason to hate the Hohenzollern Princes of Prussia and their minister, Otto von Bismarck.
Cullmann lost a considerable fortune in this war but was able to overcome this. However, later in the Dano-Prussian War, he again lost his investments on the side of the losers. It now became obvious that all of Germany would soon fall under the oppressive rule of Prussia, and the freedom which John
Cullmann coveted so much would be an impossibility.
John Cullmann made several attempts to re-establish himself in business, but he had become well known for his revolutionary activities, which had caused his bankruptcy. It became obvious that there was no future for him in his homeland and he had no desire to go to prison. By 1864, he had made definite plans to leave Germany. His wife came from a wealthy banking family in Zweibrueken, and she had no desire to leave Germany with her small children, so she returned to live with her family. John Cullmann thus left his family and first went to London, as his ultimate destination, the U.S., was embroiled in the Civil War. He knew that immigrants were often impressed into the army and he had no desire for further military activity in his life. But, he seems to have been formulating the idea of a free German colony in the U.S. where his friends, who loved freedom as he did, could come to live in peace.
Arrival in America
He probably came to the U.S. around 1865 and entered the port of New York, but soon found himself working as a clerk in Philadelphia. When he heard there were a large number of Germans living in Cincinnati, he moved there and began working in a bookbinding business while studying law on the side. He was admitted to the bar after less than a year and began practicing among the Germans in Cincinnati, who were delighted to have one of their own to whom they could entrust their legal problems.
During all of this time, he was in constant contact with his wife in Germany, whom he urged to join him. However, Josephine came from a wealthy and cultured family and she was not willing to leave all of this for what she considered the wilderness of the U.S.
Having amassed sufficient funds, Cullmann now began looking for a site for his colony so his friends still in Germany would have a free place, similar to their homeland, in which to live. We know he visited many states, often looking at German colonies already established there. These included Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, the Dakotas and other states. But all were too cold and unsettled for his purposes.
On his travels, he had made the acquaintance of former Governor Patton of Alabama, who urged him to establish his colony in the Florence area. The Tennessee Valley reminded Cullmann of his native Rhine valley, and he soon decided that this was the perfect place for his colony. The first attempt at settlement was made in an area no known as St. Florian. This occurred sometime near the end of 1871 or early 1872.
It might be noted that this was just a short time after Bismarck had defeated the French and proclaimed the German nation with the Kaiser as ruler. Before this time Germany had been a collection of small states dominated by either Prussia or Bavaria. Now everything was totally controlled by Prussia. Germany became a militaristic state under autocratic control, which would eventually fight two disastrous world wars. This state of affairs undoubtedly increased pressure on John Cullmann to found a colony for his dissatisfied friends in Germany to come to and escape this government they hated. It is interesting to note at this point that had John Cullmann and his colleagues been successful in 1848, Germany may have become a democratic state and thus prevented two world wars.
Unfortunately, the colony at St. Florian met bitter opposition. The people there refused to sell land to "foreigners," probably because of ill will created by the aftermath of the Civil War. For whatever reason, John Cullmann failed in his first attempt to found a colony. A lesser man would have been discouraged long before this, but John Cullmann was not discouraged. He immediately resumed his search.
Through Gov. Patton, he had heard that the Great North South Railway (later the Louisville and Nashville) had just completed a line connecting Nashville and Montgomery. This line passed through a largely unsettled area of North Alabama, and the railway was very interested in settling the area to gain business for the rail line. Gov. Patton arranged a meeting in Decatur between Louis Fink, the land agent and later vice president of the railway, and John Cullmann. Soon the two men were exploring every mile of the line between Decatur and Montgomery. John Cullmann was nearing the end of his search.
Cullmann narrows his search
The area most interesting to John Cullmann lay along the western end of what was then known as Brindley Mountain. It was actually the western end of Sand Mountain. This land was thought to be largely unproductive, and for the most part had been bypassed by early settlers. During the Civil War, it was largely a haven for Unionists and deserters and the poor, hardworking settlers who had been there for many years were hard put to survive during this era.
It had been visited by the Union Col. Streight and the Confederate General Forrest, who pursued him. They fought several skirmishes in what is now Cullman County, but at the time, it was part of "The Free State of Winston," Walker County and Blount County. The hardy farmers who had settled this area lived under the most primitive conditions. The only difference was there were no Indians, an aspect that greatly appealed to Cullmann as most of the areas open to settlement in the U.S. were occupied by hostile Indian tribes.
A small group of black men and women, the descendants of freed slaves, lived on the southwestern edge of the county in an community known as Arkadelphia. The black population of the area was sparse in the years following the Civil War as no plantations had previously operated in the area. Contrary to some reports, early settlers did not "run the black people out" as, in fact, there were very few black residents who historically populated the area. The actual spot selected for the colony lay two miles south of Milner's Station, now Vinemont. It was at the foot of a beautiful wooded ridge, now known as Richard?s Hill and presently occupied by the American Legion. It is near the highest point on the rail line between Cincinnati and New Orleans. Lewis Fink had John Cullmann appointed land agent for the railroad for all of the territory between Decatur and Montgomery. He was given the title of Colonel by the railroad, symbolic of his authority to act in their stead. This was a common practice in the U.S. at the time. For his colony, John Cullmann purchased several thousand acres on each side of the line in the present day area of Cullman. He did not own 10 miles on either side of the railroad from Decatur to Montgomery as it is often reported. But he now had sufficient land to found his colony and to allow for future growth.
The founding of Cullman
Col. Cullmann now returned to Cincinnati to begin a series of lectures concerning his plans for establishing a colony in North Alabama. There was great interest and he was encouraged by this. His oldest son, Theodore, had graduated from University and completed his military training as required in Germany. He joined his father in the U.S. and immediately began working with him on establishing a colony. he was a very handsome, capable young man who proved to be a tremendous asset to his father. Unfortunately, he contacted typhoid fever and died at age 25, only a few months before Cullmann was to come south. The father was crushed by this circumstance, but he buried his young son in Cincinnati, and, as he had done so many times in the past, he turned from adversity and lost himself in his work. When time came to leave in April of 1872, only five families showed up to make the trip to Alabama with John Cullmann, a total of 10 people in all. But the next year, this group had grown to 125 families, and the colony was actually becoming a reality.
Much hard work had to be done upon the group?s arrival in Cullman. A few old abandoned section houses, formerly used by railroad construction crews, were all that greeted the group. But, they quickly went to work, using these houses for temporary shelter. By the next year, this group had grown to 125 families, and so much building was going on in the town that a saw mill was opened for lumber.
The early years
Businesses quickly sprang up to serve the growing population. The railroad was their only contact with the outside, so all activity revolved around it. Times were very hard, but land sold for $1.25 an acre so everyone could afford a little plot of his own and renting was unknown.
John Cullmann built his house, which was exactly like the present Cullman museum building, on a half-block lot at the corner of First Avenue and Third Street SE. A hotel was built next to it at First Avenue and Fourth Street SE. A person arriving at the first depot immediately saw these impressive buildings on leaving the train. Though times were hard, no one seemed to notice as they worked at building their homes and businesses. The blocks were laid out in perfect squares with streets wide enough to "drive four teams of horses abreast along their course." Present day citizens have had good reason to appreciate this foresight by John Cullmann, but his contemporaries thought this was wasteful. These streets often became rivers of mud, and paving them took much more labor and material than was necessary for narrow streets. Indeed, for many years only the middle two lanes of many streets were paved and large grass shoulders were left on each side. Little could be said about Cullmann?s plans as he owned all of the land and could do as he saw fit with it.
The engineering experience of Col. Cullmann played an important part in the city plans. Not only were the blocks and streets drawn to his specifications, but land was donated for parks on each side of the railroad. Later in 1913, it was hidden from view by lowering it several feet below ground level. This is something Col. Cullmann always wanted to do. Religion was not neglected by Col. Cullmann. he donated the land for the Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as a city park and the city cemetery. He planned the city well and developed a set of zoning laws, which was unusual in that time. They were written in such a way as to allow shopkeepers to have their businesses and small craft shops on their property and live there too, as is often done in Europe. Each block was divided into four lots to allow plenty of room.
German was the main language spoken, and this made the settlers who had come to the area earlier even more distrustful of the outsiders. This distrust was eventually dispelled, but not before one of their number tried to assassinate John Cullmann with a large bowie knife, which struck him in the head but did not penetrate his skull. This caused a large scar, which he carried the rest of his life. A reporter from the Alabama Beacon of August, 1874, found the colony to be prospering and stated, "We only wish there were twenty colonies in our state like Cullman." A reporter from the Bibb Blade issue of Dec. 1880 tells of a personal visit to the Colonel, who was described as a very cultured and enlightened gentleman who was a very genial host and lived in a Swiss-style mansion across from the train station and a pretty park. he was described as being impressive and courtly in manner. The correspondent found the beautiful garden surrounding Cullmann?s home very interesting, especially since it contained several exotic animals not usually found in this area. His home and garden were always open to all people, many of whom rested there when in town.
Colonial success and personal despair
Col. Cullmann?s most consuming passion in his latter years was finding methods of livelihood for citizens of the city and county to pursue as well as increasing immigration. His ideas ranged from wine making to coal mining and tourism. Vinemont was settled as a wine colony, but became a tourist destination when wine making did not succeed. he never rested from finding ideas to make life in his colony safer and easier. He was very popular with the people but refused to hold public office because he felt his influence was great enough without it. he loved democratic ideas and felt the people should be included in all decisions.
Through the considerable influence of Col. Cullmann, the city was incorporated in 1875 and the county was formed in 1877 by the Alabama Legislature. It was the next to the last county formed in Alabama. Though Col. Cullmann had accomplished so much, he continued to work for his people as a benevolent father figure and enlightened leader. He was very popular with them.
Other events occurred which were a bitter disappointment to Col. Cullmann, including his aforementioned assassination attempt. But the greatest blow of all was the death of his second son, Otto. Otto Gottfried Cullmann had followed his father to the U.S. in the late 1870s. He became a valuable helper to his father and took several recruiting trips back to Germany to bring in new immigrants. He could be called the first president of the Cullman Chamber of Commerce. John Cullmann financed these trips by selling land to the settlers, sending the money to Germany to pay for more immigrants, selling them land, then repeating the process. In this way he had three successful immigrations directly from Germany to Cullman. Many others came from all over the U.S. and Canada. The last cruel blow to John Cullmann was the death of his son, Otto, who died of a fever soon after one of his trips to Germany. He was a young man of only 29 years of age when he died. He is buried in the same plot of land in the center of the Cullman City Cemetery as is his father.
By 1890, the Cullman area was booming. Its growth had exceeded John Cullmann?s wildest dreams. By his efforts he had brought over 10,000 immigrants to this country. Even though not all of these people settled in Cullman, this accomplishment makes him one of the foremost colonizers of our great nation.
John Cullmann's final years
It was now time for John Cullmann to spend his last days in peace for he was 68 years old. It seems that he did slow down a bit, but he did not cease his activities on behalf of the people of Cullman. He was pleased in his last years to have his lovely niece, Julia Cullmann Hartung, and her husband, Dr. Gottlob Hartung, join him. He found they were interested in raising their family in the free atmosphere of this country, so he built them a home with Dr. Hartung's office attached to the front at the corner of Fourth Street and Second Avenue SE. They lived here and were very active in the life of Cullman for over 40 years.
Julia Hartung was imbued with the "Deutsche Kulture" in which John Cullmann had spent his early life. Now she brought this spirit to the colony and reminded it of its German heritage. She was an outstanding musician, having studied with the masters Liszt and Wagner in her hometown of Bayreuth and gotten her degree at the Wagnerian Conservatory.
Dr. Hartung received his degree from the famous University of Heidelberg. Julia was the daughter of John?s brother, Jakob Cullmann. She and Dr. Hartung had eight children, four of whom were lifelong residents of Cullman. The Hartung family was very active in Cullman for over 120 years. Dr. Hartung became the community?s first German doctor and Julia taught music there for nearly 40 years. Her two daughters and granddaughter continued this tradition for over 60 more years. The sons were businessmen, doctors and teachers. All were active in the affairs of Cullman. The last of the original Hartung family members died in 1990, and there are no descendants now living in Cullman.
By 1890, Col. Cullmann had become a very successful businessman. he still had his land holdings, was publisher of the local German language newspaper, and was a director of the first state chartered savings and loan association. This organization still exists today as Cullman Savings Bank.
The death of Col. Cullmann
All of the people looked to Col. Cullmann for advice, and he was like a father to the settlement. He knew everyone by name and formed several associations for the benefit of the people. He was very active in those last years and was even making plans for a new round of immigrations, which he did not live to complete. On Dec. 3, 1895, at the age of 72, Col. Cullmann died of pneumonia.
The city and county were well established by this time, but they and the whole state of Alabama were still shocked by his death. The great leader was gone and many outstanding people came to his funeral, which was the largest ever held in the area. Even the Governor attended. It was unfortunate that everyone was so busy continuing the work of the colony that Col. Cullmann soon became only a memory, and the only tribute to him was the simple name Cullman which had been given to the city and county. The two great wars intervened and the German flavor of Cullman was lost or hidden. Little had been written about Col. Cullmann and he lived on only in the memory of his people. But very few of those knew even the barest facts of his life. Aside from a few written facts known by a small group, nothing was done to remember him until the city prepared for its centennial in 1973.
However, Col. Cullmann was a most interesting man, and the story of how his memory and Cullman?s German heritage was revived is an unusual tale in itself. As we tell the story, let us review a few facts from the life of Johann Gottfried Cullmann.
In Bavaria and the Pfaltz, John Cullmann had many disappointments. he made and lost two fortunes before he was forty years of age. he and his friends were completely unsuccessful in their revolutionary activities and attempts to form a democratic government for the Germanic States. He had lost his youngest child and was forced to flee to a foreign country just after his fortieth birthday, leaving his entire family and all of his friends behind. We could well have expected that he would give up and live out his life in the comfortable situation he made for himself in Cincinnati. But, he re-educated himself and set out on a completely new life, even more adventurous than before. But, as we know, his bad luck had not left him. His first attempt at settlement was a failure. Both of his sons died at an early age after joining their father in this country. Even an assassin could not stop him. He continued in the face of all this adversity and we have only to look at Cullman today to measure his final success. Cullman can be truly proud of their great founder and all that he accomplished. We can also again be proud of our German heritage and celebrate it for all to see. It is a happy fact that, after two world wars, Cullman finally re-awoke to her German heritage.
Cullman's German roots are re-discovered
After John Cullmann?s death, Cullman went into a sort of slumber. The city and county did not grow of bring in any industry until after World War II. The returning servicemen and businessmen formed a Chamber of Commerce and began to seek industry, as John Cullmann had done in the beginning. They wanted to expand the agricultural base which had been Cullman?s livelihood for so many years. Their success raised the spirit of the people, and as the 100th anniversary approached, the Cullman Historical Association was founded to plan a celebration. This effort culminated in the building of the Cullman Museum and Chamber of Commerce Building.
For the dedication of this building in 1976 the Mayor of Frankweiler was invited, and Cullman again re-established its contact with the fatherland. In 1985, John Cullmann?s great-great-granddaughter contacted her cousin, the author of this paper, Stanley Johnson, who was a descendant of the Hartungs and was a school administrator in Cullman. Ellen furnished many of the facts found in this paper and came to Cullman in 1986. In 1987, she and Stanley paid a visit to Frankweiler and the Mayor, Gunter Steiss, asked them to carry a message to the mayor of Cullman, Jack Sides.
In this way, the Cullman-Frankweiler Partnership exchange was founded. Over 250 citizens of Frankweiler have visited Cullman on this exchange, and over 300 citizens of Cullman have visited Frankweiler. Efforts at reviving our history have been continued with the erection of the statue of John Cullmann and the restoration of the Cullman Depot. More research is being done on the Cullmann family in Germany, and we have learned that they lived in the same spot for over 200 years in Frankweiler. The Cullman Platz has been established on this spot to remember John Cullmann in his home town. Clubs have been formed in Cullman and Frankweiler to continue this exchange, and many personal friendships have been formed between the citizens. Cullman now has an annual Octoberfest to celebrate her German background and a German Club at the high school and adult levels. Four years of the German language are now taught in the high school, which also has a German band. German is also taught in several county schools. Cullman now has a Frankweiler Platz at First Avenue and Third Street SE to commemorate John Cullmann's home town. We cannot help but believe that John Cullmann would be very pleased by all this. His efforts have now truly come full circle.
Cullmann's German descendants
After John Cullmann's death, his will was read. It directed that all of his holdings should be sold at auction and the proceeds sent back to Germany where his wife and daughter, now Mrs. Ludwig Richard, were living. The only things saved from his home were the pieces of furniture given to Dr. Hartung for his services during John Cullmann?s final illness. Some of the pieces sold at auction are still in the hands of Cullman families. The house was made into two apartments, and one of them burned a few years later. The other half was torn down and the land was sold for business. Cullmann's descendants in Germany were quite successful. His daughter married Ludwig Richard, who was a pharmacist and the official pharmacist to the Kaiser and his family. Their only child to have children was Theodor, who became an engineer and eventually the president of the German National Railway. He died in 1942. His only daughter, Herta, married Warner Renaud, who headed the Sleeping Car and Hotel section of the German railway system. Their only daughter, Ellen, married Dr. Dietrich van der Linden and had three daughters. Two are still living: Marina, who has a daughter, Maj; and Angela, who has a son. Ellen is retired, Marina is a teacher and Angela is a lawyer. So, ironically, John Cullmann's family lives on in Germany, not in the colony he founded in the U.S.