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Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.

Tucked away in the mid-Michigan town of Frankenmuth is a place where it is Christmas allyear round. Sitting on 27 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds is an Alpine-style building spanning 5 1/2 football fields--Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. More than 2 million customers visit Bronner's eachyear to meet Santa and his elves; peruse thousands of hand-painted ornaments, decorations, and gifts; and listen to beloved holiday songs.

Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, the largest Christmas store in the world, was founder Wallace "Wally" Bronner's dream. That vision spanned back to 1943, when 16-year-old Bronner began making Christmas decorations in his parents' home on the northwest corner of Haas and East Tuscola Streets in Frankenmuth.

Bronner's Frankenmuth Origins

Wally Bronner's roots ran deep in Frankenmuth, Michigan, which had been established as a "mission colony" in 1845 by a group of German Lutherans whose goal was to bring the Gospel to Native Americans and others in the region. Bronner's family was influential in the development of the Frankenmuth community since its founding. His grandparents were among the first settlers there. His mother's side of the family owned a farm, an orchard, and a general grocery store that also housed a community post office and bank. His maternal grandfather was even the president of the village ofFrankenmuth from 1917 to 1928. His father's family brought their stone and brick masonry trade from Germany to Frankenmuth when they immigrated in 1882.

Bronner himself was also significant to Frankenmuth's development, being appointed by the city council as one of four committee members tasked with designing the city's crest in 1962. The committee's design was adapted as the official shield the following year.

When he was just 12 years old, Bronner created his first paper Nativity scene--a gift for his parents--in the basement of their house. He continued his artistic endeavors as a teenager, making Christmas decorations and hand-painted signs for his Aunt Hattie Hubinger's grocery store. His signs and decorative displays caught the attention of other local business owners, and before long, Bronner's first business as a "signologist" began.

When Bronner graduated from high school in 1945, Frankenmuth's centennial year, he established the Bronner Display and Sign Advertising company while attending the Saginaw Business Institute--now known as Davenport University--for two years. The company expanded rapidly, and Bronner hired several staff members to help handle the multitude of orders.

In the midst of his growing business, Bronner was also involved in the Walther League youth activities of the Lutheran Church, where he met his future wife, Irene Pretzer. The two were married on June 23, 1951, and Irene soon joined Wally's business. While serving as a teacher in the Frankenmuth school system, she helped her husband make Christmas centerpieces for several mid-Michigan hotels, as well as local Frankenmuth restaurants Zehnder's and Fischer's, now known as the Bavarian Inn.

Becoming "The Christmas Town"

In 1951, when Bronner's decorations adorned the windows at Jennison Hardware in Bay City, visiting merchants from Clare inquired about purchasing Christmas decorations for their city. The Jennison Hardware store manager referred the gendemen to Bronner, who offered to make the decorations. Bronner found himself inspired by the project and wondered if other cities might be interested in ordering Christmas decorations as well.

The following year, he invited officials from across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario to attend a decoration exhibition in Frankenmuth. There, he displayed samples of his work, which included lamppost trims; ornaments; street streamers; illuminated greeting signs; and latex figures of Nativity characters, carolers, reindeer, and Santa Claus. The show was so successful that another was scheduled later that year. Bronner quickly purchased a vacated one-room schoolhouse on East Genesee Street to house the permanent exhibition. Because of Bronner's unusual year-round Christmas display, Frankenmuth soon became affectionately known as "the Christmas town."

In 1954, Bronner's father, Herman, built a permanent facility for his son's year-round Christmas display. Located at 121 East Tuscola Street, the facility was built on the lot adjoining what was then Bronner's Aunt Hattie's grocery store. Half of the building was dedicated to Bronner's Christmas displays and the other half to his sign painting business.

When city officials came to Frankenmuth to peruse Bronner's Christmas decorations for their municipalities, they also began ordering items to display in their respective businesses. Christmas decorations for stores, shopping centers, and commercial interiors were soon added to Bronner's offerings. He also added a complete line of religious decorations for churches. After city officials brought their wives with them to the display, requests starting pouring in for Christmas decorations suitable for the home. Bronner and Irene were happy to meet the ever-growing demand, and by 1960, they offered a complete line of Christmas adornments for home decorating.

Meanwhile, Bronner's printing company continued operating successfully. The business created billboards for many customers and constructed point-of-purchase displays for the regional offices of the Michigan Bell and Mountain States telephone companies. The Wickes Corporation, a building supply company, was the first nationwide account secured by Bronner and his team. One large order of billboards for Wickes included 40 total miles of white slats. The company continued to evolve with the addition of new technology--including camera and darkroom facilities in 1966 and automated screen printing in 1968--which opened the door to the mass production of signs.

Creating a Christmas Emporium

From 1945 to 2000, Bronner's company occupied showroom and storage space in more than 30 different buildings throughout Frankenmuth, from storerooms to chicken coops, the Ken Theatre, and eventually the company's own 22,000-square-foot warehouse.

Wally and Irene Bronner continued to add to their repertoire of Christmas offerings through the years. Because of their Christian faith and their belief that a prominent outdoor Nativity scene served as a witness to the significance of Christmas, Bronner was committed to offering a life-size, outdoor Nativity that was affordable for customers. Bronner also insisted that the Christ child be molded right into the manger to prevent pranksters from stealing baby Jesus. His dream was realized in 1969 when a Nativity set of 17 life-size figures was finally offered at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.

Beginning in 1971, Bronner worked to expand the variety of ornaments produced in Europe for sale at Bronner's. To this day, nearly 50 percent of the glass ornaments sold at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland are Wally Bronner's own design. Personalized ornaments originated as a tradition from staff holiday parties, during which Bronner hand-lettered ornaments for the children of his employees as a special gift. Countless requests for those one-of-a-kind ornaments began coming in, which led Bronner to add ornament personalization stations throughout the store, where staff artists personalize more than 100,000 ornaments a year for guests.

Finally, in 1975, Bronner decided to sell the various properties owned by the company and build one large location to house all aspects of his business. The total cost of the all-new Christmas headquarters was $1.75 million. Located at 25 Christmas Lane, the building was constructed in the Alpine style of architecture and featured bell-cots and a red slate roof. Since the 1950s, Frankenmuth had followed a Bavarian theme in its architecture--a nod to its German heritage. Frankenmuth News Editor Ed Arnold encouraged that shift in style in order for the community to build on its heritage; promote German architecture, music, and festivals; and preserve German traditions. The rich architecture of Bronner's new headquarters added to Frankenmuth's reputation as "Michigan's Little Bavaria."

Bronner also continued the European "tree-topping" tradition by having the builders place an evergreen tree on the peak of his new building after the roof was completed. Afterward, he threw a party for the workers to show his appreciation for their efforts.

The doors of the new Bronner's Christmas building opened in 1977, as did the half-mile-long Christmas Lane, on which customers drove alongside dazzling outdoor displays on their way to the store.

A Legacy of Christmas Traditions

Bronner and his family were committed to welcoming people of all walks of life and countries of origin to their Christmas emporium. Bronner's Christmas Wonderland flies the flags of more than 80 different countries on poles throughout its massive parking lot, and a large sign at the store's exit bears messages of "Thank you," "See you again," and "God bless you," in many different languages. In 1976, Bronner's Christmas Wonderland received the Embassy for Michigan Tourism Award, presented by Michigan Governor William G. Milliken.

In 1990, Bronner's underwent a $6 million expansion, which increased its size to 5 1/2 acres. With more than 500 Nativity scenes, displays of cultures from all over the world, and more than 250 varieties of Christmas trees, Bronner's truly represents a wonderland for holiday lovers. Traditions such as Bronner's annual public Christmas sing-a-longs kept Wally and Irene connected to their community in a joyful, intimate way.

Two years later, in 1992, a replica of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel was completed on the emporium's grounds. Bronner first encountered the Oberndorf Silent Night Memorial Chapel during a business trip through Europe in 1976. He fell in love with the idea of replicating the chapel in Frankenmuth and was granted permission by Oberndorf's city government and visitor's bureau to build a duplicate. Stipulations included that the chapel should be constructed as closely as possible to the original style, that it should be used for visitation rather than scheduled services, and that visitors should be educated on the original Oberndorf chapel. The Frankenmuth chapel was dedicated on November 20,1992, as a tribute to the Christmas hymn "Silent Night," which was first sung in Oberndorf in 1818.

Over the years, Wally and Irene Bronner were blessed with not only a successful business but also a loving family. Their four children--two daughters and two sons--began helping with the family business in their youth. They began by assembling boxes, packaging candy, and pricing merchandise and, later, assumed leadership positions within the company. Bronner's Christmas Wonderland continues to be a family affair.

Moreover, Bronner's approach to business empowered each and every one of his employees because he valued their input and worked to maintain a family-like atmosphere in the workplace.

After building a business; starting a family; and preserving a commitment to faith, ingenuity, and artistry, Bronner worked joyfully and diligendy until his passing on April 1, 2008, at the age of 81.

Through the many years of growth and expansion since Bronner's humble beginnings in 1945, Wally and Irene Bronner's mission lives on: "strive to promote the spirit expressed in the familiar carol, 'Joy to the world! The Lord is come!'" The Bronner family continues the tradition of the first setders of Frankenmuth more than a century ago in sharing their faith with all who visit.

By Heather Artushin

Heather Artushin is a freelance writer residing in Grand Haven. She holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Heather enjoys exploring local history and telling true, inspiring stories of people's lives.

Caption: The replica Oberndorf Silend Night Memorial Chapel at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth. (Photo courtesy of iStock.com/csotoimages.)

Caption: Wally and Irene Bronner on their wedding day in 1951. (All photos courtesy of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, unless otherwise noted.)

Caption: Wally Bronner's homestead.

Caption: Herman and Wally Bronner outside Wally's print store in Frankenmuth.

Caption: A billboard advertising Bronner's popular Christmas displays.

Caption: An early Christmas-themed catalog for Bronner Display and Sign Advertising.

Caption: An outdoor display at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. (Photo courtesy of iStock/csfotoimages.)

Caption: Wally and Irene Bronner outside the original Oberndorf Silent Night Memorial Chapel during a 1976 trip through Europe.

Caption: An outdoor Nativity scene at Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Horne.)

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Author:Artushin, Heather
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Words:1943
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