When you think of historical re-enactors, what comes to mind? People dressed in Union and Confederate uniforms, living history by dramatizing the Battle of Gettysburg?
Historical re-enactments aren’t just for Civil War buffs. Individuals around the country are harnessing the power of live theater to dramatize important events in their communities. My film, Becoming Colonel Cullmann, explores how one man fell into the role of playing the founder of a small, rural town in the Deep South.
In this series, we will look at what drives historical re-enactors to embody the past.
Larry Rowlette will tell you that he’s not an actor. An electrical engineer by day, this Nashville native works in the tech industry. But on his off-days, he dons an 1800s costume to play the role of Colonel Cullmann, the founder of Cullman, Alabama. (Cullmann insisted on dropping the last N while naming the town.)
You can see Colonel Cullmann at parades, cemetery tours and civic events. Sometimes he visits schools to talk about local history. He is also the master of ceremonies at Cullman’s Oktoberfest, a celebration that welcomes up to 15,000 people to this small north-central Alabama community.
“I portray the Colonel. When I’m in costume, I’m the Colonel. And when I first starting thinking about that: What would the Colonel say? What would the Colonel do? It just seemed like that I just needed to act naturally. So I honestly don’t consider it acting. I don’t act. I just go and do. I’m the Colonel,” says Rowlette.
When he was first tapped to play the role, the engineer had lived in town for 10 years. In 1999, two members of the Cullman Oktoberfest board of directors went to an event in Decatur, a neighboring city about 30 minutes away. That city was named in honor of Commodore Steven Decatur. The board members observed a city employee playing the role of the U.S. naval officer and decided they needed someone to play the Colonel.
It took a while to find the right man to fill the role. Colonel Johann G. Cullmann was a larger-than-life figure. A native of Bavaria, the Colonel was a political radical. During the Revolution of 1848, Cullmann was one of the masterminds behind an assassination attempt on the Prince of Bismarck. An engineer, he helped rig dynamite to explode while Bismarck was on a train. With the prince’s death, Cullmann believed they could create a more democratic government. When the train reached a deep valley, he watched the explosion destroy the train.
“There was only one problem,” Rowlette says, recounting the story as Cullmann. “Bismarck missed the train. So the only thing we succeeded in killing was a carload of hogs.”
Bismarck also sought vengeance. The prince discovered that Cullmann was one of the people responsible for the disaster. Fearing for his life, he escaped to London. Then he boarded a ship to America. He landed in New York and then went to Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and, finally, Alabama.
Cullmann got a job as a land agent for the South and North Alabama railroad. That’s where he got the honorary title of Colonel. The company needed to build a depot in the area. Cullmann decided he wanted to build a town. So he sent word back to the German community in Cincinnati, looking for volunteers to come to his new settlement. Five families arrived, and they began to build a town.
Rowlette has no dramatic training. He has never been in a play, aside from his appearance as the Colonel in the town’s annual cemetery tour. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t prepare for the role.
“In the beginning I did a lot of research. Read newspapers. There were two or three books, not a lot. And really what was difficult in the beginning is that a lot of the information in the books contradicted other books… So in the beginning there just wasn’t a lot of detailed information. It’s not like he kept very detailed diaries or logs about what was going on,” says Rowlette.
Watch the trailer for “Becoming Colonel Cullmann”
Rowlette continues: “So it was a matter of putting myself in his frame of mind in that time and place of what was he really trying to accomplish? What is he wanting to do? And how is he going to go about it? I think during that period of time, just getting all of the time frames put together is when I kind of realized, yeah, he and I really weren’t that much different from each other. I think he was a lot smarter. He was a very brilliant man…. But as far as his personality and who he was. I think he was just somebody who enjoyed having a good time. Somebody who was very strong in his convictions. To do what he did. To accomplish what he accomplished during that period of time. To endure those hardships. It really took somebody special.”
Rowlette admits he enjoys having fun. “We’re both engineers. Both kind of came to Cullman after the fact. I mean, he was 50 years old before he ever came to this country. I was 40 before I came to Alabama. He didn’t know anything about north Alabama. Neither did I. The mindsets. The more I read, the more I realized we’re probably not all that different.”
Rowlette doesn’t get paid for his time, nor does he live in town anymore. He still enjoys playing the role. As Colonel, Rowlette has the opportunity to teach young people about the history of their town.
The Colonel also helps newcomers to the area. When I moved to Cullman in 2006, I experienced a tremendous culture shock. Having spent most of my life in large urban areas like New York City and San Francisco, it was jarring to move to a small, tight-knit community. Some people were quick to remind me that I spoke “funny.” With no Southern accent and no frame of reference for local customs, the presence of the Colonel helped ease me into a completely different way of life.
When the engineer embodies the role at events, he is warm and charismatic. And when the Colonel talks about his life, a noticeable shift occurs. Rowlette maintains his southern accent, but your attention will be drawn to his sincerity. His gaze is steady and he becomes a wise teacher, telling an important story. As the Colonel, Rowlette is gentle and open. However, you can also see the strength of his convictions and the events that led the Colonel to go on the run.
Rowlette says, “I wasn’t born there, wasn’t raised there, didn’t go to school there. But Cullman was home. And what it did is it kind of gave me to do something to give back. You know, so many people go through their lives wishing they could do something for the community. Or do something for people. Or do something for their neighbor. You know, to me, I just saw it as an opportunity.”