That one time in Michigan: When we created Little Bavaria

Early settlers stand outside of Frankenmuth's Union House. (Source: frankenmuth.org)

By Karel Vega

November 29, 2023

The story of Frankenmuth.

With Thanksgiving behind us, many people around the state are already in full-on holiday mode, putting up lights and their Christmas trees. And here in Michigan, there’s one place in particular that’s synonymous with the holiday—Frankenmuth.

But beyond having such a close connection to the holidays—including boasting the world’s largest Christmas store— this small village along the Cass River also has a fascinating origin story.

Here’s how this small slice of Germany came to exist in the Mitten.

The Creation of Frankenmuth

The story of Frankenmuth begins in the 1840s with a German Lutheran missionary named Frederick Wyneken. While working across the Midwest, Wyneken found that German settlers were experiencing difficulties due to a lack of churches and schools. So, he had the idea to write to his fellow Lutherans back in Germany with a request—come live in the Midwest to help the cause.

This struck a chord with Wilhelm Loehe, a pastor practicing in the Bavarian region of Germany, and he began formulating a strategy. Eyeing the Saginaw Valley in the young state of Michigan, his mission was twofold—to create a mission colony that could help give spiritual comfort to Germans in the area while also proselytizing to the local Native American community, according to the Frankenmuth Historical Museum.

After making arrangements with the pastor of an already-established settlement in Michigan, Loehe put the finishing touches on the plan for his mission colony. The settlement would be located along the Cass River just southwest of Michigan’s Thumb, and it would be named “Frankenmuth”—a combination of the German words “Franken,” after the province of Franconia in Bavaria, and “Muth,” meaning courage.

Loehe recruited 15 people to form the colony. He then selected August Craemer as the mission colony’s pastor and leader. On Apr. 5, 1845, their journey would begin.

The voyage to America was long and arduous. On the trip across the Atlantic alone, the travelers faced violent storms, dwindling food, and illness—along with the death of a two-year-old.

After 50 days of sailing, the group reached New York on Jun. 8. From there, the rest of the colonists’ journey included boarding two steamboats and a train until finally completing the final stretch to what is now Frankenmuth on Aug. 18. Purchasing $1,700 worth of Chippewa Indian Reservation land from the federal government, the settlers chose to build shelter in a hilly area that reminded them of their native town of Mittelfranken in Bavaria.

The following year saw the arrival of nearly 100 more German immigrants to the village, along with the construction of one of Frankenmuth’s most important sites—St. Lorenz Church (which still stands to this day). Year by year, more German settlers arrived in Frankenmuth, sometimes to the dismay of Loehe, who felt new arrivals weren’t there intending to be missionaries in their hearts.

Although part of their original mission was to proselytize to local Native Americans, only about 35 were baptized. The arrival of Frankenmuth’s settlers coincided with the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans, and many Natives were forced by the government to relocate. Ultimately, the mission’s work wasn’t getting done—and it had to close.

Nonetheless, immigrants continued arriving in the area as Loehe helped build three more nearby German colonies—Frankentrost, Frankenlust, and Frankenhilf.

Over time, Frankenmuth’s most famous businesses—or their first iterations—also began to emerge. The Exchange Hotel (now modern-day Zehnder’s) was built in 1856, while the Fischer Hotel (now known as the Bavarian Inn) came just over three decades later in 1888.

At the close of the 19th century, the original mission of Frankenmuth was no longer its priority, as the village would begin making a name for itself through its businesses, including hotels, mills, and agriculture. But a few developments decades later would help truly transform the town.

Read more:

Creating Little Bavaria

That one time in Michigan: When we created Little Bavaria

“Alpine style” shops in Frankenmuth (Source: Christopher Woodrich / CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

Arguably, the most important milestone in the history of Frankenmuth occurred in 1928 when William and Emilie Zehnder purchased the Exchange Hotel. The family’s history would become tied to Frankenmuth’s to the present day.

As we fast forward to the end of World War 2 in the mid-20th century, Frankenmuth continued to expand and make a name for itself as a tourist destination.

Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland was founded in 1945, the first step in turning Frankenmuth into the Michigan holiday destination it is today. Like most in Frankenmuth, founder Wallace John Bronner grew up with the “old world” Christmas customs passed down through his family, and he revered the holiday. As his business expanded, his love for Christmas spread throughout the town.

According to the Frankenmuth Historical Society, when the Bavarian Inn opened in the 1950s, owner William (Tiny) Zehnder, Jr. began adopting German-style alpine architecture for the building. (Fun Fact—the Fischer Hotel, which Zehnder purchased and turned into the Bavarian Inn, actually pioneered Frankenmuth’s famous chicken dinners, which are now served at Zehnder’s).

After some encouragement from Tiny to adopt the Bavarian look for their buildings, many local businesses followed suit and made renovations. This gave the town a unique charm that gave guests the feeling they’d been transported into a different country.

These days, Frankenmuth prides itself as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria.” The town actually has the distinction of running the first officially sanctioned Oktoberfest to operate outside of the original site of Munich—an honor bestowed by Lord Mayor Christian Ude on behalf of the German Parliament.

And you’d be hard-pressed to find a place with a bigger holiday spirit in the Mitten than Frankenmuth. Following multiple expansions, Bronner’s now promotes itself as the “world’s largest Christmas store.” In 2005, the village also launched its Christkindlmarkt—an outdoor Christmas bazaar. During the winter, it’s truly deserving of the moniker, “Christmastown, USA.”

But how does it compare to an authentic German city?

In a blog post on the Frankenmuth Historical Association’s website, German intern Sonja, who was then working at the local history museum, detailed her experiences working in Frankenmuth and actually described the town as “more German than any place in Germany.”

Whether you’re looking for a place to get into the Christmas spirit this season or a quick escape to “Little Bavaria,” Frankenmuth remains one of the most unique towns in all of Michigan, with more than 3 million visitors annually.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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