When Heidi Chapman, the Director of the Frankenmuth Historical Museum, was taking German classes in high school, she and her father had difficulty communicating in the language because of the different dialect she was learning and the one her father had spoken since he was a child.
While Chapman learned today’s traditional German, her dad and other multi-generational families in Frankenmuth spoke “Frankish,” an old-school version that has dwindled in popularity even in the country it was born.
“People from Germany come to visit, and they want to meet someone who speaks Frankish because it’s used here still,” said Chapman. “We’re a language island even to natives.”
It’s an illustration of how deep the German roots are in the community that is widely known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria. Frankenmuth’s story begins with a group of 15 settlers who finally made it to the bay area roughly 15 miles southeast of Saginaw in 1845. The arrival came after a months-long journey that had the newcomers experience more grief than glory.
Here’s a snapshot of what they encountered along the way:
- Departed from Nuernberg on April 5, 1845, and traveled by foot, wagons, and trains.
- Boarded a ship and the drunken captain steered it into a sand bank of the Weser River.
- Winds and storms later forced them to sail around Scotland instead of through the English Channel.
- They had a second mishap in a collision with an English trawler.
- More winds drove the ship north into icebergs and dense fog for three days.
- Food spoilage in the ship that was damp and overcrowded.
- A train ride – between steamship voyages – was interrupted by a collision with a coal train.
That left them with only a 12-mile hike to where they settled and they were joined by a group of 90 more Germans a year later. Waves of family members and friends came and aided in the city’s development.
“They had a tough go of it,” Chapman said, understating the hardships of the first group. “But they never stopped. That was their mentality, they were determined to stay true to their word.”
TRACKING THE TIMELINE: Learn key dates in Frankenmuth’s history
The promise was to settle the land as an exclusive German-Lutheran community that was loyal to Germany, but it was those same roots, however, that came with suspicion during the world wars, Chapman said. Americans looked askance at the German village in the early and mid 1900s, but by then the community’s foundation was a commitment to each other and their new country.
The Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, during World War I, made socks that were sent to American troops overseas. During World War II, Universal Engineering and its employees pledged enough money to build the “Spirit of Universal” fighter plane, part of an effort that historian Carl Hansen wrote was “necessary to the war effort and the Frankenmuth residents independently needed to prove to a nation they imagined hostile to themselves, that they were indeed loyal Americans.”
A piece of the fighter, whose pilots shot down eight Japanese planes before it was rendered unserviceable because of enemy fire, is on display in the historical museum.
Frankenmuth, now recognized by many for the year-round Christmas store Bronner’s, the Bavarian Inn and famous chicken dinners at Zehnder’s, was built by craftsman who brought their entrepreneurial spirt and work ethic to agriculture and producing beer, cheese and sausage.
“It’s 175 years of heritage that’s on show in just about everything that we do,” said Christie Bierlein, the Marketing Director of the Frankenmuth Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s the architecture, it’s the reason behind the festivals and how we embrace community, it’s German language church services and so much more.
“We didn’t just wake up and decide to brand ourselves this way. It’s in our blood.”
The celebration of the town’s anniversary, officially Aug. 18, will be more muted than originally planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recognition of the historic achievement is being noted with special promotional offers, tours of the historic St. Lorenz church, and in community groups.
Chapman said while Frankenmuth has held on to its traditions, it’s also diversified into a welcoming bedroom community that engages with new residents and visitors, a pleasant step back in time in a trying time.
“Frankenmuth is a friendly place,” she said. “People wave to strangers, say ‘hi’ on the street and take comfort in being a city people love to visit. Relationships matter here.”