Maybe it’s the snow-white horses attached to Cinderella carriages bedecked with red blossoms. or perhaps it’s the songbirds flitting around a faux castle where, inside, waitstaff in full Bavarian dress serve fried chicken and heaping helpings of mashed potatoes or buttered spaetzle.
But there’s a Disney-esque vibe to the popular tourist destination town of Frankenmuth, where hand-carved figurines act out the story of the Pied Piper atop a 50-foot glockenspiel tower and at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (25 Christmas Lane), even the phrase “trash can” is translated into 32 languages on the side of the receptacle.
But what Frankenmuth perhaps most represents is the quaintness and small-town friendliness reminiscent of a German village of old, says Lynn Klammer, author of “Frankenmuth: a Guide to Michigan’s Little Bavaria” and herself a descendent of one of the town’s first settlers.
“I think that overall, coming to Frankenmuth is a bit like stepping back in time,” she says. “Regardless of the festivals and other attractions, I think that it’s the old-world, German atmosphere that brings people back year after year.”
That description feels apt as Bavarian folk music wafts from the town’s central park, and a man in lederhosen holding an accordion is calling for volunteers of all ages to swing dance to his traditional tunes. a young couple pushes a stroller, and others walk hand in hand down streets lined with perfect petunias. and this family-friendly town needs no talking characters in costume, not with its German-style architecture, indoor waterparks, riverboat rides and a signature tourist draw that’s a bit unusual and yet popular among all ages: fried chicken.
The first chicken dinners were served to guests at the Exchange Hotel (now Zehnder’s), which opened in 1856 and started feeding hungry travelers. The menu staple, particularly when served family-style, is such a draw at both Zehnder’s and the sister restaurant, the Bavarian Inn, that chicken-related trivia can make for fun and surprising dining conversation. Have your dining companions guess how many chicken dinners are served annually in town? (that would be 2 million). The Bavarian Inn alone each year serves 50,000 pounds of chicken, 566,749 pounds of potatoes, 200,000 pounds of Blue hubbard squash, 138,913 loaves of stollen and a perhaps surprising 85,334 mixed drinks.
It’s fitting in a way that food helped launch the town’s tourism industry. German missionaries — and farmers — were the town’s first settlers, and farming and faith remain showcased as much as the Bavarian roots of those early idealists, in the vast and productive fields surrounding the town, its many churches and even within tourist destinations. The first settlers were some 15 Lutherans sent to spread the gospel to Chippewa Indians through their example from two villages in the Kingdom of Bavaria. The town’s name stems from their home province (Franken) and the German word for courage, Muth. Farming remains a local tradition, and the town is surrounded by fields of sugar beets, corn and beans.
Tiny Zehnder, a one-time hog farmer, is credited with the concept of the town’s Bavarian theme. Others in the Zehnder family were already running one restaurant when he convinced the owners of the Fisher Hotel (now the Bavarian Inn) to sell. When the economy slowed soon after the purchase, he could have closed the doors. Instead, he expanded, adding Bavarian touches large and small as well as costumed servers and German specialties. The downtown business district later adopted the southern German architectural theme that drew on the heritage of those early settlers.
To get a firsthand look at the town’s history, guidebook author Klammer recommends a visit to St. Lorenz church and log cabin; the log cabin replicates the original St. Lorenz church constructed by settlers when they first came to the area. The church, built in 1880 and later remodeled boasts stained glass windows that depict Frankenmuth’s history.The local museum includes pictures of the original settlers and a doctor’s kit used by one of the town’s first physicians.
For a literal taste of the town’s roots, try your hand at pretzel rolling, offered daily at the Bavarian inn. The $4.99 price includes your hot, tasty, finished creation. There’s cheese sampling and Herman-style sausages at the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus and modern-day sweets at Sugar High Bakery, a winner of the TV show Cupcake Wars. German food, beer and dancing are the focus of Octoberfest, notable for being the only one outside of Germany recognized by Munich. But winter is when the town shines — literally — from neighborhood decorations to the luminaries that line the wooden bridge. Zehnder’s Snowfest attracts top ice and snow carvers from around the world. and at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the daily electric bill of around $1,250 tells you something about how brightly the store celebrates, inside and out, Klammer notes.
“In what other town can you get all this?” she asks, referring to the festivals and history stories and horse-drawn carriage charm, “and also have Christmas year-round?”
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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