Nestled away from the everyday hustle and bustle in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Cullman, Alabama, is a tribute to natural beauty and peace. The quiet community is known as a Catholic pilgrimage site to some and an outdoor escape to others.
Whether visitors are bound for a spiritual retreat, getting lost in the outdoors or hunting the perfect piece of craftsmanship at one of the many antique stores or artisan festivals, Cullman is a celebration of the created world.
Oscar Glasscock, a local teacher, coach and Airbnb host, credits Cullman’s peaceful charm to the combination of natural beauty, Southern creativity and down-to-earth people.
“Cullman offers those comforting qualities of a quintessential small Southern town: quiet streets, front porches, warm embraces, Faulkneresque characters, family values, a nightly symphony of cicadas and frogs,” Glasscock said. “And yet, it’s also a city with a world view, largely inspired by its German heritage and location along the I-65 corridor between Huntsville and Birmingham. The inhabitants, both new and old, are a highly intelligent group—well traveled and drawn to meaningful conversations.”
Glasscock has converted the historic site of the Cullman Ironworks into an eclectic respite for visitors to the small town and passers through alike. The actual rental space once served as the neighborhoods speakeasy before he converted it.
“Because Cullman was a dry community until about 6 or 7 years ago, many neighborhoods had gathering places in people’s homes and in local businesses after hours, so my place certainly stayed true to the Prohibition era speakeasies of the modern era in rural Alabama,” he said. “I have to warn my guests that a few local characters—perhaps well known, perhaps notorious—may stop by quite unannounced. I just shrug and grin and say, ‘I’m sure they’ll be harmless and very likely highly entertaining.’”
He has hosted visitors from all over the world in his small-town Airbnb—bicyclists from Australia and New Zealand, travelers from England, Vietnam, Canada, Italy, Columbia and Argentina, musicians passing through and outdoor enthusiasts taking in the regions beauty.
“One of the most frequent comments guests relate is the genuine kindness and curiosity of the people here,” he said. “Strangers are brought along for the ride, almost immediately.”
One way Cullman shares its hospitality and down-to-earth kindness is through its many festivals.
Visitors can experience Cullman’s rich German Heritage this month when the city’s is overtaken with artisans and displays of its heritage during the annual Oktoberfest celebration October 7-11.
Dr. Garlan Grudger and his son, Garlan Grudger Jr., are leading a recommitment to maker culture and craftsmanship in the heart of Cullman. What began as a desire to preserve unique architectural features from the many aging and dilapidated historical sites in the area has become Southern Accents Architectural Antiques.
The store features unique architectural pieces, ranging from old lumber and light fixtures to molding, columns, mantles and tubs, salvaged from properties across the Southeast.
“In a lot of situations, these items are just going in landfills,” said Lisa Jones, who handles marketing for Southern Accents. “We’re trying to prevent that, and in doing so, with every door or mantle or board we reclaim we’re saving history and passing it along.”
Many of the properties salvaged by the Southern Accents team are listed in the historical registry but slated for demolition for one reason or another.
“Craftsmanship is a dying art, no matter the form,” Jones said. “When people come in here and see these 100- to 130-year-old doors and mantles that are solid wood and built by hand they’re in awe. It’s just a level of craftsmanship you don’t see anymore. We want to give these items the opportunity to become someone else’s history.”
The staff at Southern Accents also curates Southern Makers, an annual spring event celebrating all aspects of Southern creativity.
“It’s not just a craft fair or festival,” Jones said. “It’s a very curated event celebrating all the makers around here — chefs, brewers, jewelry makers and artists.”
The nearby warehouse district is where a lot of Cullman’s maker culture lives, featuring locally owned shops, bakeries and cafes.
If the natural beauty of Lower Appalachia isn’t enough on its own, Cullman is home to many beautiful parks, from the standard city-park variety to the more organic experience of Hurricane Creek, a well-kept wilderness park just outside of town.
Nature lovers and adventurers alike daily populate the trails of Hurricane Creek, a 60-acre park with hidden in the rocky hills north of Cullman.
The park features several miles of trails that wind deep into the Hurricane Creek Gorge and take visitors past cliff sides and beautiful rock formations, making it perfect for outdoors enthusiasts, whether they seek the tranquility of bird watching or the thrill of downhill mountain biking and rock climbing.
To the west, Smith Lake offers a more laid back outdoor experience, with limitless camping and RV options, more than 500 miles of shoreline, and plenty of bass, catfish and trout to go around.
The lake is nestled in beautiful bluff’s northern Alabama is known for and plunges to 70 foot depths just beyond the shoreline.
Just two miles from Cullman’s charming downtown is St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery built on the wooded and hilly outskirts of Cullman in 1892 to serve North Alabama’s German Catholic population.
The beautiful, shaded campus is home to the Ava Maria Grotto, a curious and inspiring collection of miniature replicas of historic sites created by Brother Joseph Zoetle. The collection of 125 reproductions of historic shrines, buildings and religious destinations from around the world occupies four acres of the Monastery’s serene campus.
Zoetle worked in the Abbey’s powerhouse and built the cement replicas in his spare time. The replicas slowly grew from his hobby to a destination for visitors to the Abbey. Zoetle died in 1961 but visitors from all over the world still walk the paths of the Ava Maria Grotto in quiet meditation and admiration each day.
For visitors in need of more than a peaceful stroll, the abbey allows guests to stay in the monastery, attending mass and eating alongside dozens of monks who live and work in the abbey each day.
Back in town, the austere Sacred Heart Church rises over the Cullman’s downtown. The Roman Catholic church began as a wooden structure in 1877, shortly before the monastery was built. In 1916, the current stone building was constructed as it stands today.
For the dedicated pilgrims, the breathtaking Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament sits at the Our Lady of the Angels monastery just a few miles south of Cullman.
Story by JB Clark // Photos submitted