Frankenmuth – Michigan’s Little Bavaria

James L. Amos-Corbis

With roughly three million visitors per year, the Michigan town of Frankenmuth is the state’s number one tourist attraction. Granted, it is a peculiar name for an American city, but then again, a lot of US-towns and counties have strange names due to the heritage of their multi-ethnic founders. In our case, this heritage is, of course, German. We wouldn’t be writing about it otherwise, would we? Etymologically, the town’s name splits up into “Franken” and “Muth”. The first part obviously derives from the southern German region of Franken (Franconia), which is parted by the Federal States of Hesse, Bavaria, Thuringia, and Baden-Wuerttemberg. The name gives you a hint to the ethnic background of the city’s founders. The second part of the name, “Muth”, is an older spelling of the German word “Mut”, which translates to courage or bravery. But let’s have a look at what makes Frankenmuth such an interesting town for tourists.

Importing Jesus and Sausage Recipes

When Frankenmuth was founded in 1845, the north-eastern United States already had a history of German settlers. The first Germans, who settled in Pennsylvania at the end of the 17th ​century, were just the spearhead of a long trail of Teutonic immigrants, which peaked between 1848 and 1914.

The Frankenmuth settlement was founded mainly for religious reasons. The general ideas were to support the settlers already present, who seemed to lack spiritual guidance, to create a Lutheran outpost and to missionize the Indian natives. Thus, it is only logical, that one of the first larger buildings of Frankenmuth was reportedly a church. As many German settlers did, the Franconian party played its own part in the long and dark history of the oppression of the Indian natives. After they arrived in Michigan, the party acquired roughly 700 acres of land from the Federal Government – land that was declared as an Indian Reservation. The efforts to convert the Indian natives to Lutheranism soon came to a halt, as most of the native residents moved away from the settlement.

In the years after founding Frankenmuth, more waves of settlers arrived in the village, which slowly turned into a prospering town. Frankenmuth’s main organizer, the Lutheran pastor, even founded two more Franconian settlements close by. The string of southern German settlers never ceased until World War II, manifesting a stronghold of Franconian culture and tradition right in Michigan. While the import of Jesus into the Native’s hearts and minds had failed, the Franconians successfully imported their culinary culture and its famous recipes for sausages, bread, and beer.

Interestingly enough, Frankenmuth was supposed to be an exclusively German and Lutheran settlement right from the get-go. The settlers even vowed to keep speaking German – and even today there are a few German-speakers left in the town.

Tourism, Germany-Style

Frankenmuth profited greatly from the improvement of the American highway system, including the installment of interstate highways, after World War II. The citizens took the chance to turn the town into a major American tourist attraction, Germany-style. While farming still is a relevant business factor for the community of roughly 5.000 citizens, the German-branded touristic attractions make up a large chunk of the annual town income.

Some of Frankenmuth’s site-seeing highlights include a brewery, a gigantic Christmas theme store, and an enormously successful restaurant. The bustling citizens of the predominantly white Frankenmuth know how to keep their visitors entertained by hosting numerous festivals throughout the year, such as beer and music festivals and, of course, its own Oktoberfest. A lot of the town’s architecture is resembling (or made to resemble) traditional Franconian design. The church of St. Lorenz equitably offers monthly services in the German language. The image of Germany or what has been handed down through the generations seems to have manifested in the whole town, even in the newspaper font.

I’m not sure much Frankenmuth coined the common American image of Germany and its inhabitants. But while the town’s touristic efforts are mostly made up of the traditions of the Franconian settlers (traditions often simply seeming Bavarian), pictures and documentaries from Frankenmuth will probably feel a little peculiar to many Germans as their own traditions and their local culture often differs a lot from the historic Franconian lifestyle.