by Riley Fassezke
Michigan is a state of mavericks. Throughout their history, Michiganders have proven time and time again that they are a resilient lot. Along the banks of the Cass River, the same can also be said about the people that settled there. Frankenmuth has proven throughout its history to have a resilient economy, as well as a rich and beautiful culture. While Michigan is not without its cons, the people of Frankenmuth have set the pace for Saginaw and Tuscola counties.
Responding to multiple pleas for assistance from German missionaries in the new world, In 1845, Rev. August Craemer led 15 Germans from Neuendettelsau, a small town in the Franconia region in the south of Germany, to America. The first building constructed was a church and school for proselytizing to Native Americans, and eventually to serve the community that would soon grow from the origional 15 colonists. The colonists motto was, “Wie gut und schoen es ist bei Jesu sein,” or “How wonderful it is to live with Jesus.” One of Craemer’s followers, Pastor Lorenz Loesel, is given credit for the origin of the word “Frankenmuth,” from Franken, (Franconia) to remind them of their homeland; and the German word for courage, Mut. The following June, nearly 100 immigrants arrived from the Rosstal-Gunzenhousen-Nuremberg area. This influx of people added to the growing Ojibway population, caused the people of Frankenmuth to construct a larger church and school. This new church would be located on the sight that the present structure stands today.
Throughout the later part of the 19th century, Frankenmuth and the surrounding area would grow and shape into the town it is today. The town mostly developed a mile east of the original church and settlement to access the waters of the Cass River, as a dam and several mills sprang up on the banks. The initial success of Frankenmuth emboldened Pastor Loehe to organize other colonies in Michigan and Frankenmuth’s surrounding land. Frankentrost was established about six miles north of Frankenmuth with 22 familes. Another colony was established in 1848 at Frankenlust, about 22 miles north of Frankenmuth, close to where Saginaw Valley State University is now. And finally, Frankenhilf (Now called Richville) was established in 1850, just 9 miles north of Frankenmuth.
Initially intended to be an industrial center, once the vast forests were cleared how ever, it was found that the soil was some of the best agricultural land in the world. Naturally, farming was very prevalent, as it still is a large part of the economy today. As the new century dawned, many friends and family of the original colonists poured into the country to settle with their relatives in Frankenmuth. Frankenmuth is unique in the fact that a significant number of its residents can trace their roots back over 150 years to the same location, as many early residents stayed in Frankenmuth and never left.
Old Businesses and Long Established Infrastructure
Frankenmuth has one of the oldest breweries in the nation, the famous Frankenmuth Brewery was founded in 1866, and still operates to this day in some capacity or another. Frankenmuth is also famous for producing cheese, sausage, wine, and other trinkets such as Christmas ornaments. Many changes took place in the city following the second World War, including highway expansion bringing tourism, the formation of many community organizations, and the continued success of the school district including the high school, one of the top in the state and country.
Frankenmuth has seen some extensive building projects in its past as well. In the 1950s, the Cass River was dammed up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, later to be replaced by a series of fish ladders to allow walleye to spawn farther up the river and to improve environmental conditions below the river. Frankenmuth has experienced flooding in its past as well. Sitting on the Cass River flood plain, the the city could experience damaging floods. To combat this, in the 1980s, city officials decided to have a series of dikes built up along the river to protect the old buildings of downtown. Since then, flooding has never been an issue, although every once in a while, the residents of Frankenmuth are reminded of how close a massive flood could be.
Frankenmuth is well known for its tourism industry. Its entire economy is very dependent on the annual arrival of well over three million visitors each year. To draw people in, the city of Frankenmuth, along with businesses and clubs such as the Frankenmuth Legion and Jaycees, put on festivals to celebrate the city’s German heritage. The main festivals include: The World Expo of Beer held every third weekend in May; The Dog Bowl and Great Lakes Regional Hot Air Balloon Championships held Memorial Weekend; Bavarian Fest, which is held in early June; Oktober Fest; Frankenmuth’s AutoFest which is held in early September; and finally Frankenmuth’s SnowFest, held annually in late January.
Of all the festivals, none is larger than Bavarian Fest. The first time the festival was held was 1959, to celebrate the new Bavarian-Style addition to the famous Fischer Hotel. As this festival outgrew the small parking lots on Main Street, it was eventually moved to a large park across the river where it is still held to this day. Since the 1990s, many carnival style games and rides are set up in the park, drawing in thousands of children and adults alike. During the festival weekend, it is very common to see native Franconians donning the traditional Bavarian lederhosen (leather trousers for men) and derndle (a traditional dress for women). The weekend festival hits its peak on Sunday, where one of the longest parades in the country takes place down Main and Genesee Streets. Well over 100,000 people attend this parade and are entertained by the various floats as well as several marching bands from local area schools.
Every year, a Bavarian Committee is established, and a president presides over the festivities. My father was the youngest Bavarian Fest president in 1981. In several interviews, I asked my father what he thought about the festival. Over years the festival grew and shrank, according to him, it had to do with the economy at the time. In good economic times, the festival boomed with people, with local businesses taking in millions of dollars annually. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, a much different crowd attended this festival, as groups of bikers flocked to the festival grounds across the river at what is now Heritage Park. “The festival back in the day was quite a bit more rowdy than it is now, mostly because of the drinking age being 18.” The local police cracked down a little more in the 1990s, making the festival more of what it is today, family oriented. The Bavarian Festival has received accolades from AAA’s Michigan Living Magazine, ranking it among the Top 5 Festivals in the State of Michigan.
Frankenmuth’s second largest festival is the annual AutoFest held in early September. In the week leading up to the festival weekend, many classic cars can be seen throughout the City, seemingly transporting one back to a different time. On Friday, Main Street is closed to traffic allowing exhibitors to show their cars. The Street is teeming with people on Friday, with almost the entirety of lower Main Street busy with onlookers. Many bands and other musical acts line the street as well, with vendors also selling pretzels and other snacks. When the cars leave, it is common to see many of the bars that have outdoor patios to be jammed with people listening and watching the various custom and classic cars rev their engines up and down the road. Saturday, many of the cars park down at the same park that the Bavarian Fest is held. There, many car owners enter in contests to see who has the best car in the show. Many people use this occasion to collect classic cars, and generally this generates many thousands of dollars for car sellers. This Festival gained support for businesses and local clubs alike. The Frankenmuth High School’s Athletic Association is one of the many sponsors of the festival. Due to the success of this festival, the Athletic Association has been able to buy jerseys and pay for weight room additions to the school, as well as a brand new scoreboard for the schools gymnasium.
Dog Bowl/Hot Air Balloon Championships
Frankenmuth’s most peculiar and newest festival would have to be the annual Memorial Day weekend Dog Bowl and Hot Air Balloon competition. The festival organizers claim it to be the largest Olympic style event for dogs, with competitions including a jumping/retrieving contest; the Disc Dog, where the speed and distance is traced while dogs fetch frisbees; and Wiener dog races, held inside the central courtyard of the River Place, a local shopping center. Over 40 hot air balloon teams come in from all over the Great Lakes. Many photographers have taken breath taking pictures from dizzying heights, showing all the people gathered to watch fireworks. At night, the balloonists allow spectators to walk among the balloons tethered to the ground, giving people an up close and personal view of the magnificent balloons.
One of the biggest and perhaps the coldest event that the city of Frankenmuth puts on is Zehnder’s SnowFest. Every year in the last weekend of January, Frankenmuth invites ice and snow sculptures from across the globe. Competitors come from as far as China, and as local as the High Schools art program to claim the best snow and ice sculptures respectively. This weekend long fest attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year, with thousands of adults flocking to the very large tent that Zehnder’s sets up in their parking lot where the air is warm and the beer is always cold. Downtown is full of various sculptures long after the festival, attracting many visitors several weeks after the festivities have subsided. Zehnder’s SnowFest is also known for its large firework spectacular, which is a nationally ranked fireworks show in the United States. The festival culminates in the Saturday night show, where fireworks boom for almost 23 minutes. For many of the local restaurants, this weekend is one of their busiest of the year. Being held in late January, chilled guest to the city often flock to the many different eating establishments throughout the city. This economic engine of festivals has driven the city for much of its existence in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Economy Outwith of Tourism
The area immediately around the city has been severely hit by the economic plight of the past decade; however, Frankenmuth has seemed to whether the storm quite nicely. This has to do with the various businesses that can be found throughout the city. While hanging its hat on the tourism industry, other business including and not limited to manufacturing and insurance can be found here as well. Some of these businesses are very large, while some are just staring out and quite small, but they all share one thing. These businesses are successful.
Star of the West Milling Co.
The first Frankenmuth business to be discussed is the Star of the West Milling Company. Star of the West started in the late 1800s as one of the small flour mills that dotted the area. Since then, Star of the West has grown rapidly in size. With growers in states as far away as the Dakotas, and with mills as far east as Churchville, New York, Star of the West is one of the largest flour producers and sellers in the eastern half of the country. Today, Star of the West also handles business with Soy Beans, Sugar Beets, Corn, elevator technology, and farming chemicals and pesticides.
If you are a fan of Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish, you have tried a little piece of Frankenmuth. Star of the West is a major flour supplier for Pepperidge Farm, Post, and General Mills, while also supplying flour to various bakeries throughout the state. Star of the West’s profits are heavily dependent of the price of commodities such as flour and corn, but even with corn and grain prices substantially low, they have been able to post annual profits of well over half a billion dollars for the past decade. Star of the West is also expanding even more today, with brand new state-of-the-art facilities in Willard, Ohio, which was completed earlier this year in August. The main plant in Frankenmuth is also getting a slight make over as well; with completion scheduled for October, 2016, Star of the West will have at its disposal a completely new automated flour packer that will increase production of an already productive headquarters.
Star of the West is famous for its school bus yellow trucks that can be seen as far south as Alabama, and as far west as Idaho. In Frankenmuth, Star of the West’s main grain silo rises more than 160 feet above its perch on the northern bank of the Cass river. It is by far the tallest point for several miles, and can be seen virtually anywhere in the city. Star of the West employs several hundred people throughout the area, and almost all of the local farmers grow and sell their products to them. Star of the West is an integral part of the community, as it is a major sponsor for all of the cities festivals and attractions.
The Frankenmuth Credit Union
Another industry that can be found in Frankenmuth is banking. There are several national chains like PNC in Frankenmuth, but there is a local finance center that has become a part of the community unlike the other institiutions. The Frankenmuth Credit Union is a nationally recognized financial institutions, as it has won consecutive awards as being the fastest growing credit union in the nation, a feat never accomplished before. The FCU is a staple not only in Frankenmuth, but in many local communities in Saginaw and Tuscola counties. The FCU has also won several awards for their debit card program, which has expanding greatly in light of their new rewards system. The main office in Frankenmuth recently added a large addition, making it one of several Frankenmuth business expanding off its prosperity.
Another sucsessful Frankenmuth business is Frankenmuth Insurance. Serving the community for well over 100 years, Frankenmuth insurance was founded in 1868, and provides home, auto, business, and life insurance to its clientele. And in 2013 won the PIA National “Company of the Year.” Frankenmuth Insurance serves not only the community of Frankenmuth, but also has many costumers throughout the nation as far away as Georgia. What Frankenmuth Insurance displays is a quality found in many of Frankenmuth’s businesses, and that quality is providing an excellent service to locals, but also maintaining a national presence. For Frankenmuth being such a small city, it has quite a few nationally recognized businesses that call it home.
Zehnder’s-Bavarian Inn Lodge Conglomerate
One cannot write a research paper about the city of Frankenmuth without mentioning the Zehnders-Bavarian Inn Lodge conglomerate. The main restaurant on Main Street has been preparing meals for people in some fashion or another for 160 years. At that time, the building that would become Zehnder’s was called the New Exchange Hotel, and soon the hotel fell on hard times right before the economic crash in December of 1928. A local farmer named William Zehnder sold his 80 acre farm to buy the New Exchange Hotel. Upon purchase, he remodeled it to make it look like Mount Vernon. On Mother’s day 1929, the Zehnder family served 312 guests for one dollar each.
During prohibition, alcohol was banned, and yet the Zender family continued to offer alcohol at their hotel. On July 30, 1930, Federal agents raided the restaurant and put William, his wife Emilie, and the owners of the Fischer Hotel (now the Bavarian Inn, which would be bought by the Zehnder family in January of 1950), Herman and Lydia Fischer, in Saginaw County Jail. Bonds were set at $5,000 and $8,000 for the Zehnder’s and Fischer’s respectively, making the Fischer’s $8,000 fine “the largest ever imposed and collected for a violation of the prohibition law…” as quoted by the November 12th issue of the Bay City Times.
Since then, more than 30 million guests have enjoyed Zehnder’s famous chicken dinners, making it the largest family owned restaurant in the country. One cannot express the love affair the Frankenmuth has for her famous restaurant. Zehnder’s is Frankenmuth’s child in a way, as “The stories of Frankenmuth and Zehnder’s are inextricably linked” as Zehnder’s explains on their website. And right they are, because Zehnders employs hundreds of people in and around the area, and is extremely important to the local economy. Many Franconians first jobs were at one of Zehnder’s properties in Frankenmuth, both of my parents worked at Zehnder’s and The Bavarian Inn, as well as my sister who worked at The Fortress, a champion-class 18-hole golf course located in Frankenmuth, also owned by Zehnder’s since 1984.
Zehnder’s also owns the areas largest indoor water park. Zehnder’s Splash Village and Hotel is the most recent addition to the Zehnder’s tourist dynasty, and has recently gone expansion that doubled it in size. Zehnder’s famous neon sign that can be found outside the restaurants exterior has been there even before 1936 and is believed to be on of the longest continually used neon sign in operation. While acquiring several businesses and properties over a 150 year period of time, Zehnder’s have offered the same hospitality to guests, making them nearly iconic to Frankenmuth. Given their past record of business success in varying sectors of the local economy, it is reasonable to think they have future plans for expansion.
Prost! Wine Bar and Charcuterie
With giants in the tourist business already established in Frankenmuth, it would be hard to believe that new businesses could thrive right? Actually the opposite is quite the reality. Opened in 2014, Prost has become the young heart of the city’s night life. Prost’s sucsess can be attributed to the fact that they are a unique bussiness in the area, as many come far and wide to Frankenmuth’s wine bar. Prost has won many awards in its short two years of exsistance, making it one of the fastest growing bar in the state. In just one year, Prost was able to turn a profit and pay off all of its debts. Knowing that, Mixologists, Beer enthusiaists, and wine lovers alike cannot wait to see what Prost has in store for them in the comming years. Prost right now has one of the largest collection of wines and spirits in the state, and serves some of the most expensive and rare wines known.
Not only does Frankenmuth show its German heritage through its festivals, but it also displays some of the most beautiful Bavarian-styled architecture and design in America. This style can be seen in great abundance in the downtown part of the city, with the Bavarian Inn being the centerpiece. This type of architecture can be found in Germany’s Southeastern Bavaria and Munich areas, where many of Frankenmuth’s residents can trace their lineage back. Originally, many of the now Bavarian-styled buildings were not so, as this switch back to the older style did not gain popularity within the community until the 1950s.
Main Street is not the only place in Frankenmuth where architecture from the old world can be found. St. Lorenz Church and School is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the country, and its main worshiping building can be found on the southwestern corner of the city. The original part of the building was built in 1880, this included some of the stained glass windows that the church is so famous for. The church eventually outgrew the first sanctuary, and in the early 1960s, the church had to decide either to build a new church or add on to the already existing structure. The building project was completed in 1967, adding on the most famous part of the building today, the ornate stained glass windows and the thirteen plus foot painting of the ascending Christ. The main pulpit where pastors give their sermons, has been in use since the Lincoln administration. The church’s steeple is one of the tallest points in the community, stretching over 120 feet into the sky. Inside, the church can hold over 1900 worshipers, but Easter Sunday services can have over 2200 people in attendance.
One thing to remember about Frankenmuth is how tightly knit a community it is. Rarely do you actually see a town where everyone knows each others names, but in Frankenmuth this is actually true. This is the reason behind Frankenmuth’s success story; its sense of togetherness and wholeness. Frankenmuth is truly a homogeneous place, many of its citizens share very similar cultural and racial backgrounds. Frankenmuth is a lot of things to many different people. To some, it is another stop on a tour bus, but to a select few, it is simply called home.