Dutch Treats and Bavarian Festivals
Land of Awes Chapter 6
Tolkien wrote: “not all those who wander are lost.” Ed and Rachel Barnhart are this sentiment sprung to vivid life. When they retired in 2004, the intrepid RVers hooked up their Alfa Gold fifth wheel on a mission to see all that God created and man constructed…and find the best pizza in the USA. From the beaches of Seattle, Ed and Rachel set their sights on Maine. From there they would turn south toward the sunshine, only to be greeted by the worst Mother Nature had unleashed in decades. Undaunted, the Barnharts headed off into the sunset, through the southwest and across the Rio Grande to the shores of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From sea to shining sea and back again, all in their first year exploring what they call the “Land of Awes.” In Chapter 6 Ed and Rachel experience the hospitality of Holland and the allure of Bavaria in the American Midwest.
Our first stop on the Michigan leg of our adventure brought us to the Dutch Treat Campground. This cozy site offers modern bathing facilities, laundry rooms, fire rings, picnic tables and a camp store. Activities include swimming, paddleboats, volleyball, horseshoes, fishing and, if you are here on the weekend, the Saturday hayride. It was the perfect base from which to plan our exploration of the Wolverine State. The nearby town of Zeeland was founded in 1847 by Jannes van de Luyster. He and 456 other settlers emigrated from the Netherlands in search of religious freedom. They landed in friendly and familiar Holland, Michigan before moving on to settle Zeeland.
From Zeeland to Holland, a few miles away, this entire area is decidedly Dutch. Restaurants are decorated with Dutch colors and there are enough windmills to keep Quixote tilting forever. The large windmill in the park in downtown Holland is particularly noteworthy. Fragile and tantalizing beauty is another of the area’s foremost draws. The tulips grown here would surely inspire Van Gogh, as much as any field of bulbs in his homeland. Another delicate Dutch signature item, Delftware china, is not only imported but also made here. In fact, the city of Holland boasts the only other Delftware manufacturer outside of, well, the country of Holland.
The craftsmanship of the residents of Holland and Zeeland is every bit as painstaking and exquisite as their celebrated cousins across the Atlantic. Not only were we able to watch Delftware being made, but we also saw wooden shoes being crafted. The classic hand-chisel sculpting process has been replaced by a machine lathe and router; but once the shoes are shaped, they are sanded and painted by hand.
Another nearby attraction is the artists’ village of Saugatuck. Situated on the banks of the Saugatuck River, this town looks as if a New England seaport was lifted off the Atlantic coast and dropped into western Michigan. Many of the quaint, well-preserved houses are now studio galleries open to the public. Another must-see here is the world’s oldest hand-cranked, chain-operated ferry. We rode across, amazed at the operation. The crank and chain were so well-machined and maintained that it was easily managed by the teenage girl turning the crank. We strolled along the riverbank, stopped for a cold one at a local watering hole and watched the diverse boat traffic on the river. Our last stop before heading back to Dutch Treat was Oval Beach on the shore of Lake Michigan. Today was picture-perfect, a series of postcard moments right out of an RV travel guide.
When planning our first trip around the sun as full time RVers we had set a pushpin emphatically into Frankenmuth, Michigan. The town’s annual Bavarian Festival was scheduled for June, and we were determined to be there. After so many years reveling in the German culture of Leavenworth back home in Washington – playing music, dancing, attending festivals and appreciating art and architecture – we were determined to see if Michigan’s fabled “Little Bavaria” measured up.
In 1845 Lutheran immigrants left Europe searching for a place in America that reminded them of their agricultural homeland in Franconia. They hit pay dirt in what is now Frankenmuth, a town whose name means: “courage of the Franconians.”
Today, though the culture of this town is still definitively Deutsch, its story of success is a very American tale. In the middle 1950’s, with the town’s farming economy failing, William “Tiny” Zehnder had an epiphany. Instead of, as most expected, filing bankruptcy, Tiny remodeled his restaurant and hotel into a classic Bavarian style. Both tourists and townsfolk began visiting in increasing numbers. The legend spread and the town was saved. Today, hotels, inns, car dealers and every type of thoroughfare imaginable bear the Zehnder name.
As a woodworker, there was one structure in Frankenmuth that immediately attracted my attention. Unlike other spans, the Holz-Brücke (covered wooden bridge) was not constructed from one bank to the other. It was, instead, built on dry land next to the Cass River. This way the workers could stand on land or on ladders to work as opposed to balancing above running water. An added, practical plus – dropped tools and materials landed on land and would not have to be chased and fished out of the river. Once completed, the 230-ton bridge was pulled into place. The various blocks, capstans and come-alongs used during construction allowed a team of two oxen to accomplish the work of nearly two hundred. The bridge was constructed of five different types of wood: Douglas fir, oak, spruce, cedar and pine and built using a strong and attractive style called “Town Lattice”, a crosshatch pattern held together with 1,890 two-foot dowels called trunnels.
The history and architecture of Frankenmuth are compelling, but we were in town for the party. The Bavarian Festival was first held in the Bavarian Inn parking lot in 1959. By 1970 the event had outgrown its Parking Lot Party roots and was moved to Heritage Park, a short stroll across the Holz-Brücke from downtown. Visitors can listen to live Bavarian music, play games in the midway, watch two parades, dance and eat and drink your fill of Deutsch delicacies, desserts and, of course, beer. The event lasts four days, and we were in the heart of the festivities for each one. The first day the entertainment started around 8:00 p.m. with live music by a band called Brass Express. We danced nearly every dance, but still made time to polish off a maß bier (a one-liter stein full). And that was just the warm up.
Official festivities began the following day as local band, Frankentrost, set the soundtrack for a barbeque in the park. The Fest Tent opened at 6:00 p.m. Several bands alternated until the ceremonial keg was tapped two hours later. That’s when the party started in earnest. Between dances and draughts, we met and mingled with several local couples and Festival regulars from further away.
Saturday morning was dominated by the children’s parade. We missed that, but were ready when, at 4:00 p.m., the music began again at the Fest Tent. Steins were raised and feet moved with the rhythm of music punctuated by appreciative singing and shouts of accolade. Another amazing night.
Sunday morning began with a ride over to nearby Vassar for services at Calvary Chapel. We had visited Northern Bavaria in 1995 and were surprised at how much the ride from Frankenmuth to Vassar reminded us of the trip from Leutershausen to Ansbach. After church we headed back to Frankenmuth and found a place along the main drag to stop and watch the Grand Parade. That year marked a century of service for the Frankenmuth Fire Department, so the Bravest were well represented. Every city and town for miles sent their antique and modern fire trucks to take part in the parade.
After the parade we hopped aboard the Bavarian Queen, a sternwheeler that took us up the Cass River and back. The ride was fun and the narration filled us in on local history as we went. By mid afternoon on Sunday, the music had started up and we joined the other festivalgoers in an extended last hurrah. In deference to the area’s significant Polish community, some of the music had a distinct Polish polka influence, slightly different from what we were accustomed to in Leavenworth, but every bit as enjoyable. The party lasted into the wee hours; and, once the last notes were played and the last of the beer was pulled from the kegs, all that was left was to offer our new friends a very fond farewell and exchange promises to keep in touch.
Having now spent four exhilarating and exhausting days in Frankenmuth, while Leavenworth will always be our sentimental favorite, we can attest that the folks in Michigan may stand tall with well-deserved Teutonic pride. While each town is distinct – Leavenworth is situated in the mountains and Frankenmuth in a flat, agricultural area – both represent classic and modern Bavaria well…and, of course, they know how to party!
Our departure from Frankenmuth was bittersweet, but our dancin’ shoes were tired. It was time again to swap them out for our travelin’ shoes.