Let me ask you a question: What is the first association that comes to mind when you think about the city of Frankenmuth? Right, the fact that it’s "Michigan’s Little Bavaria," or "Michigan’s most German town" of course!
Frankenmuth is a city where German heritage and culture live on, even over 175 years after the first 15 German settlers arrived. The buildings look German with their timber-framed architecture, you can enjoy German cuisine and stores, and German festival traditions like the annual Oktoberfest ensure that there is something fun going on all year round.
But how does all this look to a young modern-day German?
Hi, my name ist Sonja, I am 24 years old and I come from Tübingen, Germany! I am currently an intern at the Frankenmuth Historical Museum, as part of my Master’s degree in History. I arrived in Frankenmuth about three weeks ago and absolutely love my experience so far!
There is so much to do in Frankenmuth, the city centre is cute, clean and walkable, in short, everything the German heart desires! And of course, as a budding historian from Germany interested in migration stories, what could be more fascinating that Frankenmuth’s unique history of immigration, frontier life, and assimilation?
Another thing that amazes me in Frankenmuth is it’s friendly and welcoming people who take a genuine interest when talking to me! The one question I get asked every single time is: "What do you think of Frankenmuth? How are we doing: how authentically German is Frankenmuth?"
A simple question, right? But the more I think about it, the more complex this seems to me!
How do you measure authenticity and what are the criteria for being authentically German? Is it the way the city looks and the architecture? Is it the German specialties you can buy in Frankenmuth’s shops? Or is it the way of life, the traditions, the heritage?
Well, my fist impression was: Frankenmuth is more German than any place in Germany I have ever been to!
Let me explain: From the impression I have got so far, the German heritage and roots are and have been central for the community’s identity and Frankenmuth takes great pride in being a German town. All things German are cultivated and celebrated!
For many Germans in Germany, however, being German is nowadays not such a central part of our identity, I’d say, paradoxical as it sounds. Much more important for us is being European, or coming from to a certain region in Germany. I, for example, grew up in Hamburg, and am a Hamburger by heart. I am proud of the way we speak, of our lokal dishes, songs and most importantly beer brands (I recommend: Astra, Holsten, Ratsherrn).
When I moved to Tübingen in Southern Germany for my studies, I had a bit of a culture shock. People took pride in entirely different things: Different dialect, different traditions, different beer!
Being proud of our nationality is something we handle with great caution since the end of the Second World War and the Third Reich and most importantly after the Holocaust.
Frankenmuth, however, is proud of a German history and heritage that doesn’t have to deal with the the guilt that is a consequence of the Nazi Era for the modern state of Germany.
On the contrary: Frankenmuth went out of its way to prove its loyalty to the USA during the two World Wars. The most outstanding example of this being the purchase of P-51 Mustang fighter plane for the U.S. Army by the employees of the Frankenmuth Universal Engineering Company.
Speaking of regions, we are also very proud of our regional German identity, we’re Bavarian!“, you’ll say! And you are right! I get the impression that Frankenmuth is first and foremost a Bavarian city, Franconian to be even more precise!
But where is the difference between German, Bavarian and Franconian? A very good question! The easiest answer would be: Franconia (in yellow) is a part of Bavaria and Bavaria is a part of Germany. But it isn’t quite as easy: The region of Franconia is not only part of the State (Bundestaat) of Bavaria, but also of three other states in the German Federal Republic: Hessia, Thuringia and Baden-Wurttemberg!
The Franconian settlers that founded Frankenmuth came from Roßtal in Middle Franconia, Bavaria. (Did you know that Roßtal goes back to Roßstall, which means horse stable?) At the time, Germany didn’t yet exist and Roßtal lay in the independent Kingdom of Bavaria.
The settlers spoke "Bairisch“ which is not just a regional dialect of German, but an independent language! This is not to be confused with "Bayrisch“ which refers to all languages and dialects spoken across the territory of the modern state of Bavaria.
For me, this language is somewhat difficult to understand, since I grew up in Northern Germany, where dialects and regional languages are almost entirely extinct. I only heard and spoke „Hochdeutsch“ – standard German – until I moved to Southern Germany for my studies. When I listen to records of the Bairisch language from Frankenmuth I do get the general sense of what is being said, but I have a hard time getting all the nuances and a good part of the vocabulary is entirely different.
This might also be because in Frankenmuth, the 19th-century version of the Bairisch language lives on and language evolves a lot! You probably speak differently to your mother or grandma than to your friends, don’t you? This is because even in the short time span of a few generations, the language has evolved.
Coming back to our question of how authentically German the city of Frankenmuth is, I think you could say that Frankenmuth is more Bavarian than German and more Franconian than Bavarian! Frankenmuth is different than modern day Germany. Modern day Germany consists of 19 federal states (a similar system to that of the U.S.) that can vary a lot. The pretzel, dirndls and lederhosen or the Oktoberfest, these beloved things that first come to mind when thinking about Germany, stand more for Bavaria than for the entire country of Germany.
So I’d say that in many aspects, Frankenmuth is very authentically Bavarian!
But what is the most German or Bavarian thing about Frankenmuth and is it also the most authentic? One could argue that the timber framed architecture is the most German thing, because this is what most obviously distinguishes Frankenmuth from other towns and cities in Michigan and even in the entire country. You can see the German heritage everywhere in Frankenmuth and as far as I know, there are only about a dozen places in the United States where that is the case.
You probably knew that Frankenmuth didn’t always look the way it does today. For me, this was a surprising discovery during my research on the city’s history! The German settlers that founded Frankenmuth and the other Franken Colonies in the mid-19th century built towns that looked very American indeed! But why is that? Why didn’t they build towns that looked like their hometown?
My guess is that half-timbered houses were simply not within the scope of their possibilities time- and money wise. Houses had to be practical, built with the recourses at hand. The first homes they built were log cabins and log houses. When the sawmill started working in 1847, buildings started to become more complex. But until the 1940s and 50s, Frankenmuth’s architecture evolved like a typical Midwestern town.
The bavarianization of Frankenmuth buildings only really began in the late 1950s, when Frankenmuthers began to rediscover their interest for and pride in their German heritage, which had been slumbering during the era of the World Wars. The River Place Shops followed in the 2010s.
So, the Bavarian-style buildings in Frankenmuth are much newer than most German timber-framed houses, which date between the 14th and 19th century. Another difference is, that most Frankenmuth buildings became Bavarian through a remodeling of the façade. This means the timber frame is not so much carrying the weight of the entire building, but has first and foremost of a decorative function.
All this makes the Frankenmuth architecture look less winding and crooked and the buildings shine in brighter colors! What a wonderful renaissance of half-timbered houses – my favorite type of architecture!
In my opinion, being authentically German cannot mean being most similar to modern day Germany. I think, being authentic means conserving original traditions, customs and heritage throughout the centuries!
So, Frankenmuth, if you ask me how you are doing authenticity wise, my answer can only be: You're doing amazing!
Sonya is an FHA intern and a German graduate student pursuing museum studies.
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