Bavarian Festival History
Michigan's largest celebration of Bavarian Heritage is the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival. The festival began in 1959 as a collaboration with the Grand Opening Celebration of the Bavarian-Style addition to Fischer's Hotel on Main Street of the city by William "Tiny" Zehnder.
Visitors to the Bavarian Festival are invited to celebrate German heritage through Bavarian music played by authentically dressed German bands, watch two parades, enjoy the local schuhplattler dancers Da Frankenmuda Fratz'n, and dance music. Venues sell many varieties of German foods and desserts, along with imported and domestic beer.
Each year, thousands of people enjoy the annual Sunday Bavarian Festival Parade, usually featuring over 100 entries including marching bands, decorated floats, dance clubs, visiting dignitaries, entertainers, royalty, and that year's newly crowned Bavarian Princess and her Court. The Bavarian Festival has been voted one of the "Top 5 Festivals in the State of Michigan" by AAA's Michigan Living Magazine.
1959 was the inaugural event. The brainchild of William "Tiny" Zehnder and his wife Dorothy. The initial event was planned as a celebration of the grand opening of the Bavarian addition of Fischer's Hotel. The first Bavarian Festival Parade was held in 1961 with an estimated 10,000 people in attendance.
In 1962, the Frankenmuth Civic Events Council was chartered. The CEC is comprised of members of each civic organization in Frankenmuth to run the Bavarian Festival. The CEC then administers and disperses the funds raised during the Bavarian Festival to many non-profit groups. In addition, the CEC distributes funds to support three annual collegiate scholarships and cultural exchanges between Guzenhausen Germany and Frankenmuth.
The year 1963 saw Kathy Uebler crowned the first Bavarian Princess and the Bavarian Festival was themed "Bavarian Memories."
In 1970, the event outgrew the parking lots of the Main Street restaurants and moved to what is now Heritage Park located at 601 Weiss Street. Frankenmuth celebrated it's 125th anniversary in style with the opening of Heritage Park which now features 4 picnic pavilions, 3 ball diamonds, playgrounds, sand volleyball courts, basketball court, riverwalk pathway (0.9 miles) and several facilities for numerous additional festivals. The year had an estimated 80,000 people attend the Sunday Bavarian Parade. The parade lasted for over an hour and one-half with 99 units entered. Michigan Governor William Milliken walked the entire route. Nearly 2000 chicken dinners were served on Sunday by the American Legionaries from post 150 using a newly constructed barbecue pit they built and donated to the City of Frankenmuth.
A significant change for the 20th anniversary of the Bavarian Festival was changing the route of the annual Sunday parade. The parade had marched north along Main Street but the direction was changed to march south that year. The route remained that way until 1995 when it switched back to a south to north direction. In 1998, the parade reverted back to a north to south route along Main Street.
"Bavarian Beer Buckets" were introduced in 1979. The buckets were provided with a sealed lid and limited to two per person. Over 33,000 buckets were sold at 50 cents each.
The 25th anniversary of the Bavarian Festival was celebrated in 1983. Featured was an appearance by Miss America Debra Sue Maffet, family farm tours, and kayak races.
1998 was the 40th Anniversary Celebration. The Civic Events Council produced a booklet, slide and video presentations as well as artifact displays to help preserve the history of the first five years when the "Bavarian Folk Festival" took place along Main Street.
2002 brought the first Richard G. Krafft Jr. Award which was presented to Dick Krafft in recognition of countless hours volunteered to the Bavarian Festival. The Award then became an annual presentation to honor someone behind the scenes who gave hours of blood, sweat, and tears at Heritage Park to help make the festival successful. These are the people out of the limelight who just always show up, do their job, and don’t expect anything in return.
2005 saw the grand opening of the 28,500 square foot Harvey E. Kern Community Pavilion and it has become a focal point of Heritage Park and center piece for the Bavarian Festival. Today, visitors of all ages flock to Frankenmuth's downtown Main Street area to enjoy the many shops and dining establishments available.
2017 is the year the festival returned to its roots, moving back downtown.
2018 saw the addition of the free Friday Night Street Party. People were free to have a cold beverage on Main Street while enjoying bands, kids activities and the Zip Line down Main Street. A special Princess Coronation Dinner was held at the Bavarian Inn. The 60th Anniversary brought out many Past Princesses and courts along with Past Presidents for the Sunday Parade.
2020 suffered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and like many festivals across the country, was canceled. With the State of Michigan opening up slightly by the time of the canceled festival, The Roosters of the Frankenmuth Jaycees continued the tradition of the Chicken BBQ to give people an opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy a meal. A group of Past Presidents came up with a small, impromptu five unit parade that traveled through the neighborhoods of town giving people an opportunity to enjoy the day with family and friends.
The Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival will return in 2021.