In the Spring of 1850, a group of settlers set out from Mittelfranken, Bavaria to begin their 4-month journey to their new home. Most of the group lost heart in settling in unknown lands. Several families split off and left for Detroit and Saginaw. When they saw a chance at a new life and economic freedom, they took it. I recently said this to one tourist and she asked, "How important was religion to the early settlers?" This is a complicated question that is best answered by the settlers themselves. So, I dove into these early letters to understand this better myself.
In 1849, communicating with Pastor Wilhelm Loehe back in Germany, Pastor Fedinand Sievers of Bay County purchased over 1,592 acres of forest in Tuscola County. Their plan: establish a fourth colony and industrial center that would provide jobs for poor incoming settlers. On the surface, economic reasons appear to be the primary factor in settling this fourth colony. When comparing Wilhelm Loehe's letters over the first few years, he increasingly notes the dire economic situation in Germany at the time, and wanted to provide a way out for German families.
On the surface, one might say that Loehe's primary motivation for settling Frankenhilf was economic. But, read a little deeper into the letters and actions of the first settlers, and one sees that God was still at the center of their lives.
Loehe and the first Frankenhilf settlers recognized that a chance at a new life might satisfy their economic needs. By first satisfying their basic needs and establishing a financial foundation, settlers would thus have the resources and time to dedicate their lives to God even more deeply.
While many split off from the first group of settlers, two families remained committed to establishing Frankenhilf. Upon arriving, they immediately constructed a home, complete with one large room to accommodate church services. On August 17, 1850 the home was dedicated and Pastor Kuehn began offering Lutheran services. Thus, “Frankenhilf” was established, fulfilling its religious mission of its namesake, “Aid of the Franconians.” A more literal translation is “God’s Help of the Franconians.” The name and early actions of the first settlers prove that God was still at the center of their lives.
Slowly, more families began trickling in. In June 1851, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Gruber arrived. In the Fall of 1851, three more families came. The following year, 8 more families joined them. The colony’s roots slowly grew in the soil of the swampland.
Despite Pastor Wilhelm Loehe’s intentions to create an industrial center to employ German-Americans, Frankenhilf has remained a small, tight-knit community. Farming was difficult in the swampy land, which made it difficult for Frankenhilf to prosper. Thus, many settlers used their skills as craftsmen to survive, and many travelled to nearby mills and factories to earn a living.
Frankenhilf slowly grew and in 1851 settlers organized St. Michael’s Lutheran Church. It became the nucleus of the community and remains so today. Ironically, postal authorities nicknamed the community of poor settlers “Richville.” The name stuck and was officially adopted in 1862. Richville’s population recently climbed over 3,000 and it is a thriving community with a small-town feel.
Nathan is the Director of Education, Events, & Exhibits at the FHA.
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