What does a carving bench have to do with a gun, a wagon wheel, a wedding ring, an ox’s bladder, a fat sow, a tall man, a fir tree and a pile of manure?
In this popular way to learn German, the leader of the song points to a poster illustrated with symbols representing the words the singers encounter as the song progresses. Plenty of repeating helps the singers memorize them in no time.
These vocabulary words may not be vital for everyday life in Germany, but they certainly caused me to bond with fellow travelers while singing the Schnitzelbank Song in Frankenmuth, Michigan recently.
Originally home to Chippewa Indians, a 680-acre forest on the banks of the Cass River was settled by German Lutheran missionaries in 1845. They named their new home Frankenmuth, derived from “Franken,” representing the German region of Franconia the settlers called home, and “Muth,” the German word for courage. Farmers emigrating from Germany cleared the land and planted potatoes, corn, wheat and grains. Mills were built along the river, and the town grew, but the people still remained true to their German heritage. In time, Frankenmuth became known as Michigan’s “Little Bavaria.”
In 1888, Fischer’s Hotel began catering to tourists in a unique German style. When the establishment was renovated and reopened as the Bavarian Inn in 1959, a grand opening celebration took place. That has become an annual June event filled with polkas, locally brewed beer and “lion tamers,” the local term for bratwursts served with German sauerkraut. The inn’s traditional Bavarian exterior includes a typical onion-shaped tower and an artificial stork nest on the highest chimney of the roof, recalling how storks nest on European buildings. Stones are placed on the roof at various intervals — another German tradition — to keep snow from sliding off. A German Glockenspiel plays in a 50-foot bell tower. Several times a day, a 35-bell carillon plays, and carved wooden figures standing over four feet tall revolve around the face of the clock, illustrating the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.Inside, several themed dining rooms are decorated with hand-painted murals featuring scenes from Grimm fairy tales and woodcarvings created by a local craftsman. Traditional German fare and all-you-can-eat family-style chicken dinners are the Bavarian Inn’s specialties.
Across the street, legendary chicken dinners are served at Zehnder’s. Here, you can also admire its topiary chicken.Pass the miniature stone castle in the Bavarian Inn’s “Tinyville,” …cross the Holz Brücke, Michigan’s largest covered wooden bridge…
and you’ll come to the Bavarian Inn Lodge. Owned by the second generation of the Zehnder family, the lodge offers hundreds of themed guest rooms, each named after a Frankenmuth family, with the history of the ancestor who emigrated to Frankenmuth from Germany. I stayed in a room named for the Deurings, fourth-generation farmers who continue to raise soybeans, navy beans and hay on some of the original acres their ancestor, Johann, farmed in the mid-1800s.
In 1945, Wally Bronner, a talented sign-painter and window-display designer, began a business built on the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus every day. While it remains focused on its Christian beliefs by distributing religious tracts, it has become a legendary landmark. Its present location, opened in 1977, is the size of one and a half football fields.
Open 361 days a year, Bronner’s offers 50,000 gifts, including over 500 styles of Nativity scenes, decor from dozens of countries, and ornaments classified by type, such as Religious, Sports, Snowmen, Music and Pets (no librarian-themed ones in the Occupations section, though). More than 300 decorated trees are displayed; each one includes a Nativity ornament. Staff are said to personalize over 400,000 ornaments each year.Customers have included John Wayne, who ordered a Santa suit by telephone on December 15, 1976, and Jeanne Cooper, who portrayed Katherine Chancellor on the CBS soap opera, The Young and the Restless.Watch short films about Bronner’s and admire a collection of over 1,000 Hummel figurines in one corner of the store. In another, learn more about Wally Bronner through various artifacts from his life, such as an example of the Christmas decorations he designed and created for Frankenmuth’s lampposts in 1951.Before you leave, pose with your version of Santa…then walk around the store’s 27 landscaped acres, illuminated with over 100,000 Christmas lights year-round. Listen to Christmas carols playing on loudspeakers as you pass giant Santas, gnome colonies and a parade float celebrating “Silent Night.”
Reach a musical-score arch above a walkway that leads to the Silent Night Chapel, built in 1992. This replica of the original church in Oberndorf, Austria where the hymn was first sung and accompanied by guitar on Christmas Eve in 1818. Plaques provide the words to the hymn in over 300 languages, while various recordings of the song are played on loudspeakers.
For more on Frankenmuth, see Frankenmuth: A Guide to Michigan’s Little Bavaria, by Lynn Marie-Ittner Klammer, as well as the June/July 2018 issue of German Life. Dorothy Zehnder wrote three cookbooks including Bavarian Inn recipes: Cookies and Bars: Family Favorites from Frankenmuth; Come Cook with Me: A Collection of Recipes and Wisdom; and From My Kitchen to Yours: Timeless Recipes and Memories from Me and My Family. The Bavarian Inn also maintains a “Recipe of the Month” archive, where I found how to make the apple strudel I enjoyed while singing the Schnitzelbank song, as well as the banana nut bread I wolfed down for breakfast.