Frankenmuth -- the city of Chicken and Christmas

Edwin Zehnder of Zehnder’s Restaurant fame, welcomes visitors to Frankenmuth. The plaque commemorates the town’s original Bavarian settlers.

The city of Frankenmuth, a curious combination of Old and New World culture, was founded in 1845 by a band of Bavarian settlers who came here for a new home and to convert the Indians to Christianity.  But it wasn’t until more than a century later that  the town dug back into its own history for an identity that turned it into one of Michigans top tourist attractions.

The original settlers built a log church in a forest clearing near Saginaw and Bay City and called their settlement “Frankenmuth or “Courage of the Franks”.

By 1915 the chicken dinner was already a Frankenmuth tradition at the Fischer Hotel, and by the 1940s several thousand hungry diners would travel to Frankenmuth each weekend for the “all you can eat” dinners at the hotel and at Zehnder’s restaurant across the street..

But in 1958 the Fischer Hotel found itself in financial difficulties. Wally Bronner, a local sign painter, suggested the hotel adopt a Bavarian look. The Fischer was remodeled and the name changed to the “Bavarian Inn”. It was so successful that other businesses followed suit and soon the entire town looked as though it had plucked from Bavaria and deposited in Michigan.

One German authority described the architecture of the town as the most authentic outside of Bavaria.

St. Lorenz Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frankenmuth.

      As Detroit has the Big Three automakers, Frankenmuth has its own Big Three — Zehnder’s Restaurant, the Bavarian Inn and Bronner’s. But chicken isnt its only industry.

About two hours north of Detroit, Frankenmuth is one of Michigan’s biggest tourist attractions, pulling in about 3 million visitors annually. Two million of them also visit Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, billed as the world’s largest Christmas store.

Founder Wally Bronner makes an effort to greet each visitor and wish him or her a Merry Christmas, no matter what time of year. Open 361 days of the year, the stores employees always dress in red and green. “We close on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. We like to think each of those 361 days are Christmas Eve, getting prepared for Christmas day,” says Bronner.

For the first time visitor to Bronner’s, the effect can be overwhelming. Located on 28 acres, every square foot of the store appears to be jammed with Christmas trees, wreaths, animated display figures, ornaments, tinsel, twinkling lights, figurines, Santa Claus suits and more.

Wally and Irene Bronner in front of their Christmas store in 1980.

Bronner, now 71, was living with his parents in 1945 when he designed his first Christmas decorations for city lamp posts in Clare, Mich., and it occurred to him that this might be a way to earn a good living.

Bronner likes to take visitors on a tour of the town, and in fact, he takes each of his new employees on a tour before starting work to make sure they are immersed in the spirit of the place.

Each year Bronners sells more than 600,000 glass ornaments, 530,000 feet of garland, l50,000 post cards and 86,000 light sets. Much of his business comes from restaurant chains, businesses and city governments, but many families make shopping at Bronner’s an annual event. The busiest shopping day of the year is the day after Thanksgiving. In 1995 28,000 customers jammed into the store.

Nothing escapes Bronners attention to detail. We have translators on staff fluent in Japanese, French, Italian, Polish and Spanish, he once told a Detroit News reporter. We have wheelchairs for the physically challenged, and we have Christmas items that say Merry Christmas’ in Braille.”

Bronner is especially proud of his Silent Night Memorial Chapel just outside the store. The chapel is a replica of one in Oberndorf, Austria, on the site of the original St. Nicholas Church where Silent Night was first sung Christmas Eve 1818. In the chapel, visitors can hear Silent Night sung in 263 different languages.

Some other Frankenmuth attractions:


  • Frankenmuth Historical Museum – covers the history of the town from missionary days to the present
  • Zeesenagel Italian Alpine Village, a miniature Italian Village featuring more than 500 handmade characters.
  • Michigan’s Military and Space Museum — dedicated to Michigan servicemen and women
  • St. Lorenz Lutheran Church built in 1880, a Gothic brick structure with 167-foot steeple, and the log cabin church built in 1846
  • Bavarian Doll and Toy Factory at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, popular with children.
  • School Haus Square – more than 20 indoor shops in the renovated St. Lorenz Lutheran School
  • Frankenmuth Taffy Kitchen – a machine in the window continually pulls taffy
  • Frankenmuth Cheese Haus – over 120 kinds of domestic and imported cheese; also jams, jellies, candy, coffees and huge selection of crackers,and more
  • Frankenmuth Fudge Kitchen – watch the fudge-maker at work on one of three huge marble slabs; over a dozen flavors
  • The 35-bell automatic carillion in the Bavarian Inn’s Glockenspiel Tower plays three melodies followed by a presentation of carved wooden figures depicting the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Nearby is a replica of the 19th-century Holz Brucke, Frankenmuth’s wooden covered bridge that spans the Cass River.

    The Zehnder family poses with a pile of soon-be-fried chicken dinners in 1965. From left: Herman, Edwin, Fred, Erma, Leonard and William.

    (This story was compiled using clip and photo files from the clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

    By Kay Houston / The Detroit News