Home, Alien Home

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 17-18.

Each time I return to Frankenmuth, as I did again earlier this summer, I am plunged into family history. Located in the Saginaw Valley in east central Michigan, Frankenmuth is one of four small communities established in the area by German Lutheran immigrants from Franconia (now part of Bavaria) in the late 1830s and early 1840s. All four of my family names—Nuechterlein and Hubinger on my father’s side, List and Strieter on my mother’s—are included in the roster of the earliest settlers.

The original purpose of the Frankenmuth community was to do missionary work among the region’s Chippewa Indians. That didn’t come to much: the Chippewa were resettled by the government shortly afterwards, and, in any case, it is difficult to imagine those theologically rigorous Lutheran immigrants—insistent at all times that the distinction between law and gospel be strictly maintained—having much success in proselytizing efforts among a people to whom the simplest expressions of Christian doctrine would have seemed quite esoteric.

But religion remained central to the Franconians’ enterprise: the founding charter specified that anyone who gave up the faith thereby excluded himself from the community. The settlers were determined to retain both sides of their German Lutheran heritage, but religion was always more important to them than language or ethnic identity. Lutheran orthodoxy could best be maintained, they thought, if the language barrier helped shield the community from the doctrinal indifference it perceived in the surrounding American Protestant culture. (That indifference, the immigrants believed, had already corrupted much of American Lutheranism.)

Frankenmuth stayed loyal to its founders’ intentions. For over a century after its founding, it remained a culturally isolated enclave, overwhelmingly German and Lutheran. (In 1847, the Franconians joined with Saxon German immigrants from Perry County, Missouri, who were equally rigorous Lutheran confessionalists to form what eventually became the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.) My parents left the community (they were not from Frankenmuth itself, but from the nearby rural community of Frankenlust) and wound up in Detroit. In moving, they made a self-conscious break with German ethnicity (though not with Lutheranism). Their children would be Americans, and they did not teach us the German that had been their own first language but which they now spoke only when they wanted to keep things from us. They did not break off family ties, however, and parts of every summer were spent in visits to relatives in the Frankenmuth/Frankenlust area.

As a child, I was puzzled by aspects of life there. I noticed that my cousins spoke English with a distinct German accent and that in moments of excitement they would often unconsciously switch from English to German—though, noticing my bafflement and out of deference to my odd inability to speak or understand the language, they would quickly switch back to English. It was only later that I came to realize that in Frankenmuth, more than a century after its founding, everyone (well, almost everyone) had German as a first language and thus spoke English as if they were recent immigrants.

I gradually learned just how close the community was and how binding its cultural patterns were. In perusing family history as far back as I could, I could find no one, on either my father’s or mother’s side—including those who had left Frankenmuth—who had married anyone other than a German Lutheran. (As a quasi-rebellious young man, I was determined to break the pattern. For reasons having nothing whatever to do with family tradition, I did not.)

Years later, when I started teaching American history, I would use Frankenmuth to indicate to my students that the then-prevalent image of America as a melting pot did not capture the whole truth of the nation’s immigrant experience. Frankenmuth, indeed, was multicultural before multiculturalism was invented—though its bedrock conservatism would not likely recommend it to most multiculturalists.

Today’s Frankenmuth is very different from what it was in my childhood. In 1958, someone came up with the idea of running a Bavarian Festival every summer. It caught on immediately, and the quiet, isolated Frankenmuth of the immediate postwar years is now one of the premier tourist attractions in Michigan—indeed, in the whole Great Lakes area. And not just during the Festival. It has become a year-round tourist magnet. Its two largest restaurants—Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn—both rank in the top ten in the country in terms of numbers of meals served annually. It also has a megastore devoted entirely to Christmas-related products—Bronner’s—that advertises throughout the Midwest and is the largest of its kind anywhere.

The Frankenmuth of my childhood has been transformed. Then it was relatively dull and poor; now it bustles with prosperity. On a summer afternoon tourists fill shops that have sprung up along crowded streets that were once virtually deserted. The ethnic character that for so long set the community apart has become the basis of its economic success. The Frankenmuth I remember simply was German; now it is self-consciously so. Lederhosen and gemütlichkeit abound. For the sake of visitors from Detroit, Frankenmuth is today more Bavarian than Bavaria. It is still predominantly Lutheran, but its prosperity has made it more religiously diverse and—how could it be otherwise?—less religiously preoccupied. At its founding, the community nourished its ethnicity to protect its faith. Now it does so to protect its economic base.

I still love visiting Frankenmuth, and in some ways I feel quite at home there. Nowhere else can I assume that clerks in stores or motels will know how to spell and pronounce my last name, which to them is no more out of the way than "Johnson" might be elsewhere. (The last time I checked, there were seventeen Nuechterleins listed in the local phone book.) When our youngest daughter visited there for the first time as a small child, she was surprised and delighted to see her name on several store fronts, including a neon "Nuechterlein Jewelers." A stroll through the cemetery becomes a revisiting of family history.

But the feeling of familiarity is superficial and misleading. In many ways, Frankenmuth is no less strange to me than other prosperous tourist towns I have visited. Like them, it has a somewhat unreal air, and being there seems a pleasant but artificial excursion from ordinary life. I enjoy the German culture, but, thanks to my parents, it is not really my culture. (I had to go to college to learn to read the language, and I cannot begin to speak it.) Even its Lutheranism is unfamiliar to me: the liturgy and the preaching style at the largest local congregation, I discovered on my most recent visit, are quite different from what I have become accustomed to.

As my wife and I drove out of town, Thomas Wolfe’s "You Can’t Go Home Again" flashed through my mind. But, as I immediately realized, that’s not quite right. The Frankenmuth community was home to my forebears and my parents, not to me. The nostalgia I feel there is for a way of life that could have been mine, but never was. When you really get down to it, I’m just another tourist.