FRANKENMUTH—Snow is on the ground and Mariah Carey is flooding mall speakers across the state—which means it’s the time of year when 2 million people are making plans to head to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth.
That’s right, an estimated 2 million people visit the world’s largest Christmas store every year.
Founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner, the store is Santa’s workshop on steroids, overflowing with ornaments, trees, wreaths, snowglobes and any other Christmas decoration you or your mom would want to display this holiday season.
After the recent passing of Irene Bronner, the 95-year-old matriarch of the Christmas wonderland, it’s time to look back on the history of this Michigan destination.
Here are five things to know about Bronner’s:
It started as a sign-painting business.
When Wally Bronner was 16, he started an after-school sign painting business that he ran out of his parents’ basement. When he graduated high school in 1945, sign painting became his full-time job. Things took a jolly turn when he met merchants from Clare who wanted Christmas decorations for the city’s lampposts. Bronner created a line of panels, and that was the start of his career in Christmas.
The store was initially broken up into three locations.
In 1951, Wally married public school teacher Irene Pretzer, and in 1954, the Bronners built their first storefront in the middle of Frankenmuth. In 1966, they bought an old bank and turned it into Bronner’s Tannenbaum Shop. And in 1971, they bought Wally’s Aunt Hattie’s grocery store and turned it into Bronner’s Bavarian Corner.
The current Bronner’s building is equivalent to five-and-a-half football fields.
In 1977, the three Bronner’s locations were consolidated into one 45-acre site at “25 Christmas Lane,” and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland was born. The size of the building was doubled in 1991.
Bronner’s is an official “Embassy for Michigan Tourism.”
In 1976, Gov. William Milliken designated the store an “Embassy for Michigan Tourism” because, according to Bronner’s communication assistant Lori Libka, they provide year-round Michigan memories.
“Bronner’s has become a holiday staple for Michigan families because they can find the joy, magic and peace of Christmas in the store, across the grounds, and in the Silent Night Memorial Chapel,” she said.
Irene Bronner worked the reception desk at Bronner’s well into her 80s.
Eventually, Irene left the classroom to join her husband in the shop.
“Irene’s impact on the business and her family was great,” Libka said. “Hers was a quiet, supportive role that was the basis for much of the success of her family members and the store.”
On Mondays and Friday evenings, Libka said you could find Irene working the reception desk. She also volunteered at the Lutheran Home in Frankenmuth, playing piano for monthly sing-alongs for over 34 years.
In 2007, Wally celebrated his 80th birthday by working a 10-hour day in the store. The next year, the 81-year-old died of cancer. It’s reported that prior to his death, Wally said that one day he’d go to heaven “to make sure the decorative touches are in place.”
Wally and Irene had four children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Irene died in October at age 95.
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