Imagine being a passenger aboard a rickety boat during a stormy night at sea in 1845.
With swells and waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing down, you’re below deck – where you’ve been since boarding. Only those sending dead bodies off to sea are allowed on the upper deck. You’re on your way to a land unknown and praying you survive the treacherous journey. It’s hard to imagine that what is today Frankenmuth, Michigan – home to world famous chicken dinners, year round extravagant festivals, and a tourist destination for more than 3 million visitors each year – all began with just 15 brave souls and a steadfast mission.
Original 15 Settlers
In "Teach My People the Truth!” The story of Frankenmuth, Michigan, author Herman F. Zehnder says, “The original 15 settlers, coming from the province of Middle Franconia, Bavaria, were motivated by the noblest ideals of service to God and Man, and they were willing to leave their relatives and friends, cross an ocean, and endure the hardships of frontier life to carry out these new ideals. Their objective was to establish a Christian community in the midst of the pagan Chippewa Indians and to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
President of Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn Lodge, Judy Zehnder Keller says that understanding the crippling conditions the original 15 settlers lived in paints a more clear picture of what they longed to leave behind. At that time, there were kingdoms and castles, rulers and religious control, continual invasions, rules prohibiting marriage without a dowry...
“They were seeking religious freedom, equality, and liberty,” Keller says. “They wanted a better way of life.”
Courage of the Franconians
The idea of founding Frankenmuth was first fostered due to a German missionary working in the United States named Frederick Wyneken. In 1840, he wrote an appeal to all the Lutherans in Germany for help, telling them of the hardships of the German pioneers in his region and of their lack of pastors, churches, and schools.
This appeal struck the heart of Wilhelm Loehe, pastor of the country church in Neuendettelsau, Mittelfranken, Kingdom of Bavaria. Loehe organized a mission society, training teachers and pastors for work in the U.S., and he wrote the pastor of a Swabian settlement in Michigan to recommend a site for his mission colony. Loehe approved the location along the Cass River in Michigan, naming it “Frankenmuth”. 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."
Loehe also selected Pastor August Craemer, who was 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 after 50 days at sea. By steamboat, train, and even foot, the settlers made their way to the Saginaw Valley and present-day Frankenmuth. They purchased 680 acres of Indian Reservation land, and a combination church-school-parsonage log cabin was completed before Christmas day. The church was named St. Lorenz, after their mother church in Rosstal.
Willkommen to Frankenmuth!
Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the first colonists, eager to emigrate to America, awaited letters welcoming them to come, too. In 1846 a second group of about 90 emigrants journeyed the same path as the 15 original settlers to Frankenmuth. With more than 100 colonists present, the foundation of true community was formed that remains to-date, 175 years later, as Frankenmuth, Michigan.