Of course, Frankenmuth is in no way the result of only two families.
Many, many families and courageous individuals are rightfully recognized in its 175-year history. From the Rupprecht family, who opened a butcher shop and sausage house in 1905 that is today the well-known Willi’s Sausage Co., to Dr. Marvin Engel, a Frankenmuth veterinarian, who was instrumental in the union between Gunzenhausen Bavaria, Germany, and Frankenmuth becoming official sister cities — a nearly 60-year union today that continues to encourage German heritage and traditions for all involved.
Frankenmuth history includes the Fischer family, Engel family, Rummel family, Bronner family (to name a few) — and significant individuals, too. For example, Wilhelm Loehe, pastor of the country church in Neuendettelsau, Mittelfranken, Kingdom of Bavaria, organized the mission of the original 15 settlers’ emigration and approved the location along the Cass River in Michigan, naming it “Frankenmuth”.
Loehe also selected Pastor August Craemer, a teacher at Oxford, England, to become the mission colony’s pastor and leader. Indeed, Craemer was at the head of the 15 original settlers, aboard the Caroline, who arrived in the harbor of New York on June 8, 1845. In 1846, a second group of about 90 emigrants journeyed the same path as the 15 original settlers to Frankenmuth.
Among those 90 emigrants were two men, John G. Hubinger and Johann Stephan Zehnder.
The German word “Franken” represents the Province of Franconia in the Kingdom of Bavaria, and the German word “Muth” means courage, thus the city name Frankenmuth means “courage of the Franconians.”
AMONG THE FIRST: HUBINGER FAMILY
The Hubinger family was among the first to open businesses in Frankenmuth in the mid-1840s. Marking the beginning of construction of the first saw mill, in 1847, John G. and John M. Hubinger built a dam of logs and stones across the Cass River at the same spot as the present dam, generating enough power to operate a saw mill. Machinery for the mill was imported from Germany, and the Hubingers opened the business in 1848.
According to an article titled, “The Franconian Colonies of the Saginaw Valley, Michigan,” “The sawmill… proved of great advantage to the settlers, as they now could improve their huts, erect houses and barns, and the community now improved very fast. In 1848, wheat, oats and corn were raised, but as yet it had to be taken to Flint for milling. The dauntless Hubingers set to work and built a flour mill.
Now the settlement became independent of the outside world for building material and bread flour, in fact some neighboring settlements now came to Frankenmuth for these things.”
Evolving into the Nickless-Hubinger Flour Mill, the business was still in operation through the 1980s (a third flour mill was opened on that site in 1982). The historic building, located near the center of Frankenmuth on Mill St., most recently housed the Lager Mill with a store featuring Michigan craft brews and German beers as well as a museum that paid homage to Frankenmuth’s brewing history.
John M. Hubinger also began a grocery store in 1851 at the corner of Main and Tuscola Streets, which remained in operation until 1971 when his descendant, Hedwid "Aunt Hattie" Hubinger, passed away.
Today, Frankenmuth is home to many family businesses — and Hubinger Street, in honor of one of its first.
Wally and Irene Bronner purchased the Hubinger grocery location, which became Bronner's Bavarian Corner and the third Christmas store the Bronner’s operated. Later, the family combined all three into what is now Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland.
GENERATIONS IN FRANKENMUTH: ZEHNDER FAMILY
Interwoven into the very fabric of Frankenmuth itself, the Zehnder family name has been in Frankenmuth since the second year the settlement was founded. In 1846, a shoemaker named Johann Stephan Zehnder and his family voyaged for 50 days at sea to arrive and partake in the mission colony.
Johann’s grandson, William Zehnder Sr., and his wife, Emilie, went on to sell their 80-acre farm in 1928 and become owners of the New Exchange Hotel — the first restaurant in Frankenmuth (having served meals since 1856, just eleven years after the founding of Frankenmuth.)
Taking inspiration from Mount Vernon, William and Emilie extensively remodeled the establishment to resemble George Washington’s home and opened Zehnder’s on Mother’s Day in 1929. Zehnder’s continued, even through the Great Depression and difficult times. On March 10, 1947, William Zehnder Sr. turned over the business, debts and all, to his two daughters and five sons.
The Zehnder siblings operated Zehnder’s and also had the opportunity to purchase the competing restaurant across the street, Fischer’s Hotel, and did so in January of 1950. Eventually, Johann’s great-grandsons each lead a restaurant across the street from one another while still working together as brothers and family. William “Tiny” Zehnder, Jr. was named manager of what would become the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn, and Eddy Zehnder was named the manager of Zehnder’s.
Today, members of the Zehnder family (cousins and Johann’s great-great-grandchildren) continue as presidents of the Zehnder family businesses. Al Zehnder, Eddy Zehnder’s son, is CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, including Zehnder’s Marketplace, The Fortress Golf Course, and Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel and Water Park. Judy Zehnder Keller, daughter of William “Tiny” Zehnder, Jr., is president of the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant, Bavarian Inn Lodge, and the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus.
“We were raised in the businesses,” Al Zehnder says. “We were taught how to work together and remain friendly… to never argue over a dollar. Our parents showed us how to run a business, and how to keep family first.”
Marking another generation of the Zehnder family in Frankenmuth, Judy Zehnder Keller’s son, Michael Zehnder Keller (Johann’s great-great-great grandson) is president of Frankenmuth River Place Shops today.
Frankenmuth has evolved tremendously in the 175 years since its founding, from humble beginnings to world-famous staples, but what has always stayed the same is its family-focused values and the strength of its collaborative business community.