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Reflections: A Unique Landmark

Enjoy our “Reflections” post — one of many vignettes and stories featuring memories of days gone by. This installment is from J.A. Heitmueller. 
If you would like to contribute your own Reflections story, send it, along with photos, to hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

Werdt family store

Seven-year-old Linda usually waited outside for her mother, but on this bright June day in 1948, her youthful curiosity got the best of her. Nearly every Sunday after services at St. John’s Church, Mrs. Stiefelmeyer stopped at the old weathered, two story building on the corner of 5th Street Southeast in downtown Cullman to buy something to add to the family lunch menu. Werdt’s store and deli appeared to have a thriving business, especially so since it was the only place in town open seven days a week. Many evenings the light was known to burn brightly in the windows long after dark until all the customers quit coming. In the past, Linda had stayed in the car watching what seemed a constant parade of folks in their Sunday best scurrying up the sturdy wooden steps and through the banging, ornate screen door to purchase last minute items on their way home from church.
 “Mother, may I go in with you today?”
“Of course, just be sure not to break anything,” she replied with a raised eyebrow and a wagging finger of caution.
Once inside, Linda could hardly absorb the scene before her, instantly understanding the reason for her mother’s admonition. The only source of light was a single bulb hanging from the high tin ceiling overhead, causing it to take several moments for her eyes to adjust in the small, dim room. She could hear the well-worn oak boards creaking under her feet as she tentatively followed the narrow pathway winding between fragile glass showcases on either side of her; each displaying a crowded array of tiny figurines and colorful trinkets. She felt herself automatically drawing her arms close to her body to keep from bumping into things… as her mother had directed.
The little girl strained through the haziness to see a long line of customers at the rear of the store waiting patiently at the counter to pay the stocky, serious faced older woman at the cash register. The mood was somber with few words spoken. The only sounds Linda heard were the ring, ring, ringing of the register and the hollow clicking of patron’s shoe heels on the barren wood floors as they exited the store and rushed home to their dinner table. Behind the counter, a flimsy, floral curtain stretched along a sagging wire separated the main store from the backroom. Taking note of the items the woman carried through the opening, Linda assumed refrigerated goods must be stored in an icebox somewhere behind the obstruction.
Located in North Alabama, Cullman County was founded by Colonel John G. Cullmann in 1873 as a colony for German immigrants. The Ernst von Werdt family settled there in the late 1800s as one of the pioneer families.
Mr. and Mrs. von Werdt, along with their son and daughter, Herman and Clara, lived in the rear of the building. In the 1900s they used the upper story as a boarding house for immigrants passing through or settling in Cullman. The family operated two dining rooms, one for their boarders and another for guests who came to dine. Mr. von Werdt, of Swiss origin, was in charge of the “speak-easy” in the rear of the store. Prior to prohibition, locals enjoyed gathering there to dance, play cards, drink wine and beer, and listen to the “Nickelodeon.” Ducks, geese, and pigs roamed freely in the yard. The south side of the house yielded Mrs. von Werdt’s prolific rose garden, and Mr.von Werdt’s hearty vineyard flourished on a hillside in the backyard.
Siblings Herman and Clara, along with their mother, were in charge of the deli and store. He was quite a solemn fellow who sported a well-groomed mustache, while lovely Clara was known for her aristocratic bearing. Among his fellow residents in town, Herman’s reputation was one of frugality. He also worked at the local Post Office. It was told that he could be seen walking the few blocks to and from work on the grass rather than the cement sidewalk in order to preserve the soles of his shoes. On many a frigid winter mornings, one could spy Herman struggling with a bulky burlap sack over his shoulder as he trudged along the railroad tracks across the street from their home gathering coal that had spilled from the train cars passing through town. Both Herman and Clara were regarded as very patient with their customers, especially the many children who came in the store clutching only a few pennies in their hands as they took their time agonizing over just which piece of candy they would buy.
One former customer recalls that though the store was very small, the inventory seemed unlimited.
“I don’t remember asking for any item that they didn’t have. Oysters were available in season, two dozen for a quarter.”
“Mama could buy two pieces of two-foot long licorice for a penny,” said another.  “She took me there when I was losing my baby teeth. One bite of that licorice and the tooth popped right out!”
There was something for everyone in the crowded store.  The von Werdt’s shipped a variety of bread from the International Bread Company in Nashville on the L & N Railroad and sold it unwrapped in baskets on the deli counter. One could buy rock candy, peanut butter kisses, stick cane candy, orange slice candy, hoop cheese, pickles, cold cuts, Clabber Girl Baking Powder, and even homemade chow chow. It was rumored that if a customer came in quite late in the evening, he would be expected to purchase a jar of the relish to go with his order.
However, over the years, very few dinner tables in town have not been graced with the deli’s most popular food item…Mrs. Werdt’s famous potato salad. Donald E. Green, who grew up to become the mayor of Cullman from 200-2008, recalls wandering into the deli kitchen as a child one afternoon while his mother was shopping.
“I remember watching Mrs.Werdt standing by the sink making a huge bowl of potato salad. Suddenly, her big orange cat jumped up on the counter. Without missing a beat, she took that wooden spoon out of the potato salad, gave the cat a “whomp” on the head and nonchalantly resumed her stirring. Now you know the secret to the Werdt’s famous potato salad!”
In 1965 when the last member of the von Werdt’s family passed away, the dilapidated wooden structure was demolished and replaced with a sleek, modern building to house an insurance company. Only the screen door remains, and ironically, today it can be found on the front porch of the Stiefelmeyer homeplace.
“You know,” Linda said with a wistful look. “ I often eat lunch at the Busy Bee Café these days. Werdt’s store was located just across the street on the opposite corner. As I sit and eat my meal, it’s seldom that I don’t close my eyes and let my mind drift back to that warm Sunday morning when I was a child, vividly recalling the overwhelming sight I beheld the first time I walked through that front door nearly seven decades ago.”

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