From the Series On the Road in the States
If there is a stereotype that holds true for most German-named towns in the US, it is this: It has to be German no matter what. This applies for language, culture and tradition and especially architecture. And furthermore, one has to stand out in its identity. The city of Frankenmuth in eastern Michigan is one of these communities that fulfills both stereotypes. The city is located in Saginaw County, approximately 20 miles south of Saginaw and another 25 miles west of Lake Huron. The city is seven miles (14 kilometers) east of Interstate 75 and another five miles away from neighboring Bridgeport, home of the State Street Truss Bridge. The community has over 5,500 inhabitants and if adding Bridgeport and some communities in the township, the conglomerate has over 12,000 inhabitants.
When looking at Frankenmuth from an outsider’s perspective, it looks like a typical American community with rows of houses, large yards, a Main Street with business district and a river with some bridges over it. Yet, not all villages with German names are typical American towns that follow the tradition of farming, local festivals and events and American traditions that we are accustomed to. This one is typically German, going from names down to tradition and language. Settlers first came to the region in 1845. Consisting of Lutheran missionaries, the settlers crossed the Ocean on the ship Caroline before taking the Nelson Smith from New York via Detroit to Saginaw, going along canals and through the Great Lakes. Records revealed that most of the settlers who founded Frankenmuth originated from the region Mittelfranken in central Bavaria and the shield representing the city features a combination of Bavarian and Franconian elements, including a falcon. Despite its creation, it took 59 years until the community was officially incorporated in 1904. The origin of Frankenmuth consists of the first half the region itself and the second half, “muth” representing courage- the courage of the Franconians who wanted to settle down in a new region and convert many nearby into Christians. Like at the beginning, Frankenmuth today represents the largest of the German enclave in the region, which include Frankenlust, Frankenhilf (Richville) and Frankentrost, plus other communities, like Bridgeport. They all have the following common traits: the Lutheran faith, German language and Franconian tradition.
Frankenmuth would not be called that, let alone become a magnet for tourism and tradition had it not been for the following families that put the city on the map: Bronner, Fischer and Zehnder. All three families were of Franconian blood, All three of them knew the ways of marrying tradition with tourism. Theodore Fischer and family started a restaurant and hotel in 1888 under the family name. Their son Hermann and his wife Lydia made their mark for their “All you can eat family style chicken dinner.” In 1928, another family, William and Emilie Zehnder Sr. founded the restaurant bearing their name. Their son Tiny was a farmer and would collect the leftovers to feed the hogs. Faced with financial difficulties and a choice between expansion and sale, Elmer Fischer, who had acquired the family business from his parents, sold his business to Zehnder in 1950. Tiny quit farming to take over the restaurant and hotel business together with his wife Dorothy, and the rest was history.
Despite relapses in earnings due to recession during the 1950s, Tiny untertook a half-century drive to expand and convert the restaurant into one that is a resort complex decorated with a taste of Bavaria. The restaurant and hotel became known as the Bavarian Inn Restaurant and Resort Complex. The new addition boasted an authentic Bavarian exterior-stucco walls, woodcarving, flower boxes and other German accents were blended with the new German entrees served by “Bavarian” costumed servers. A week long celebration with German entertainment was held in 1959 which today is known as the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival. In 1967 the stunning 50-foot Glockenspiel was added, topped off with a 35-bell carillon. It became an instant Bavarian Inn landmark with its revolving figures that depict the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln. During our visit in 2018, the Bavarian Inn, which features two restaurants, a hotel and resort complex and also ferry service along the Cass River, was well-received with hundreds of guests being served by waitresses dressed in their best Oktoberfest outfits, serving the best beer and Bavarian entrées. And yes, the all-you-can-eat Chicken dinner, invented and patented by Theodore Fischer, is still being served there and the taste is unbeatable- crispy with a little spice in there, but really good together with mashed potatoes and homemade sauerkraut! You can also find this at Zehnder’s Restaurant and Complex, located in the city center on the Cass River.
Tiny’s restaurant and hotel expansion did not stop at the Bavarian Inn. He was known as an expansionist with a German traditional flair and because of his successes at the Bavarian Inn, Tiny encouraged other businesses in Frankenmuth to revamp their buildings to include the Bavarian architecture that went all the way down to the lamp posts. Even a covered bridge with a Bavarian style architecture was built in 1979 and is still in use. In addition, many of the historic buildings that had existed since the establishment of the community were preserved as museums. Traditional Bavarian goods eventually replaced the common American ones. Frankenmuth eventually became Michigan’s Little Bavaria. Until his death in 2006, Tiny Zehnder continued to make the community the attraction for German goodies, yet there was one more person who came up with a business idea which resulted in Frankenmuth becoming the world’s capital, and that is Christmas ornaments!
The visit to Frankenmuth is definitely not complete without a visit to Bronner’s Christmas Store. The store was founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner, who had just finished high school and was helping his parents with a local business. Wally discovered the talent of creating metal signs which later expanded to include Christmas ornaments. An avid Christian who enjoyed Christmas, Bronner would later expand the store, which would include a Silent Night Chapel and over ten acres of Austrian and Bavarian-style architecture, each building and section representing a country, holiday and even the American nostalgia that had their sets of ornaments. A detailed history on Wally Bronner, his life and the creation and expansion of the store can be found here.
Today’s Bronner’s Christmas Store is indeed the world’s largest Christmas store, housing tens of thousands of holiday ornaments from over 70 different countries, including Germany, Austria, parts of Asia and the Middle East and the US. Whatever a person is looking for, Bronner’s has it. If a person is an avid Christmas fan, like Wally, you can expect to spend hours in that store, stocking up on Christmas lights and ornaments. It was the case with our visit in 2018, where even some of the nostalgic Christmas lighting that I grew up with as a child were found there. They included bubble lights and C-7 glass lights, which we picked up- together with dozens of other ornaments to be decorated on the tree back home in Germany.
If one spends time in Frankenmuth, a day is needed at Bronner’s before doing other activities that the small farming community, well-known as Little Bavaria, has to offer.
Frankenmuth has the taste of Franconian culture and tradition in itself. There are lots of activities to enjoy both in town as well as along the Cass River. Yet one needs a lot of time to spend in the community in order to understand how it was created, how it was marketed and how three families left their marks in the town’s history books. In comparison to the other German-named villages visited so far, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, Frankenmuth is considered one of the most German of communities, growing together, while maintaining their Bavarian heritage, and providing a magnet for tourists to stop by to shop and to visit. Especially around the time of the festivals, like the Bavarian fest and the Christmas market (a separate article with an invertiew is enclosed and can be read here), will a person find Frankenmuth at its best- Little Bavarian in the middle of America’s heartland.
For more Information on Festivals and other celebrations in Frankenmuth, check out ist City Website by clicking here.
There is a Bridge Guide on the Frankenmuth/Bridgeport Region via sister column, The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. Click here and have a look. Three of Frankenmuth’s Bridges can be found there.