Seeking Michigan: From Signage to Santa

Seeking MichiganBy Mary Zimmeth, Archives of Michigan and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and see more stories from Seeking Michigan at Absolute Michigan.

25 Christmas Lane on a winter’s eve, circa 2010 (Photo courtesy of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland)

My favorite holiday movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Clark Griswold, (Chevy Chase), our hero, has a plan for the traditional Griswold family Christmas that includes fifty thousand twinkling outdoor lights on the roof. When Clark drags his entire family out to see his masterpiece, the lights don’t work. The frustrating, yet entertaining, effort to fix the problem resonates with me (This includes Clark on the roof checking each individual bulb.). My favorite part comes when Clark prevails, the family is impressed, and he thanks his father for teaching him about exterior illumination.


Wallace Bronner (1927-2008) knew that exterior illumination is essential for the holidays. We are all familiar with his enormous enterprise: Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, located on 25 Christmas Lane in Frankenmuth. Initially, this behemoth of holiday cheer started as a signage business. During the early forties, Wally worked as a sign painter and a clerk at the Hubinger Grocery Store, which was owned by his maternal relatives. Part of his job included designing window displays. In 1945, as Frankenmuth celebrated its centennial year, Bronner Display and Sign Advertising was in demand for painting signs and decorating store windows and parade floats. That year Wallace Bronner met Irene Ruth Pretzer, the woman he would marry on June 23, 1951 at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Hemlock, Michigan.

Signs designed by Wally Bronner for the city of Clare, 1951 (Photo courtesy of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland.).

Irene was instrumental in helping Wally land a monthly window display contract with the Jennison Hardware Company of Bay City (c. 1947) (Irene had attended Bay City Junior College and boarded at the home of G.W. Cooke, president of the hardware company.). Bronner’s work for the hardware company resulted in a referral to the town of Clare, Michigan (1951). This first municipal holiday commission was to design decorative lamppost panels. After that job, Wally hired his friend Fred Bernthal to look for new clients in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario.

Bronner also entered into contracts with General Plastics Corporation (Marion, Indiana) and Mold-Craft Corporation (Port Washington, Wisconsin). These companies provided street trims and ornaments, latex Santas, reindeers and nativity scenes. In 1952, Bronner staged two shows exhibiting outdoor Christmas decorations, one in the Frankenmuth Township Hall, the other at the St. Lorenz School gymnasium. Both were successful. However, both venues were temporary. Bronner decided to rent a more permanent building, a vacated one-room schoolhouse (formerly Frankenmuth School District Number 1). Thus, year round exhibit of Christmas decorations became possible! “At first the people of the community thought the idea to be rather unusual, but accepted it fully when Frankenmuth became known as the Christmas Town.” (Bronner’s 2005 Corporate History, page 35.)

“Thinking Big”

Wally Bronner with employees. (Photo taken in the 1960s. Photo is courtesy Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland)

Herman Bronner (Wally’s father) was a building contractor and stone mason. He convinced his son to “think big” by changing the plans for the first Bronner-owned building from two, L-shaped, rectangular buildings to one large, square building. The Bronner’s store at 121 East Tuscola (a lot adjoining Aunt Hattie’s grocery store) opened in 1954. It was divided into two sections, one space for the sign painting business, the other for Christmas decorations.

Wally was grateful for his dad’s vision and business acumen. The municipal clientele grew to include shopping centers and commercial interiors. As buyers selected decorations for their stores and churches, their wives requested home decorations. From 1954 to 1963, Bronner exhibited at the Saginaw County Fair, which, at the time, boasted numbers of three hundred thousand people. By 1960, the company was officially incorporated, and home decorations were added to the product line. In 1964, the first billboard advertising Bronners appeared on I-75, ten miles south of Exit 136 (Frankenmuth). Many travelling up North are familiar with that sign. Subsequent ones (more than sixty located in seven states) continue to extol the importance of holiday cheer and illumination.

Source material

Picturesque Story of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, as related by Wally Bronner. Published by Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, 2005.

The History of Bronner’s Christmas Decorations by Doris A Paul. Published by the Frankenmuth Historical Museum, 1981.

Brad Redford, a native of Frankenmuth visited Bronner’s last year and has a pretty funny video in his show Redford’s Rundown. However, we’re going to have to go with this awesome music video of Wally Bronner (Christmas Always) by Michigan rockers The Hard Lessons. A little tip: click that link and subscribe to their email list to download their entire new album Arms Forest AND stay tuned at the end of the video for the B-side of this song, O Holy Night!

Michigan History: The Tri-Motor Conquers the South Pole

1929 Ford Tri-Motor by Fernando Gomes Semedo
1929 Ford Tri-Motor by Fernando Gomes Semedo

Six hours into their flight, the four explorers aboard the Floyd Bennett, a specially equipped Ford Tri-Motor airplane, stared at the mountain range ahead, blocking their way. Veteran pilot Bernt Balchen eased the plane upwards and entered the pass, which proved much narrower than anticipated. At the end of the pass there stood a ridge that had to be cleared. The overloaded plane was at 9,400 feet and wouldn’t climb any higher. Balchen shouted, “We’ve got to lighten the ship.” His navigator, Richard E. Byrd, pondered if he should throw out food or extra gasoline? Byrd decided to dump a four-day supply of food. The plane lifted slightly, but downdrafts pushed it back down. More sacks were thrown overboard. That did it, and the Floyd Bennett cleared the pass by five hundred feet.

Before Byrd stood a vast glacial plateau. Four hours later, the future U.S. Navy rear admiral took a navigational fix. “Ninety, south,” he yelled. Everyone was delighted, they were the first to fly directly over the South Pole. Balchen circled the pole and the crew dropped several American flags; one in memory of Floyd Bennett, who had piloted Byrd over the North Pole three years earlier. The Floyd Bennett headed back, landing at an advance base where gasoline had been stored earlier. The flight had taken almost eighteen hours and covered 1,600 miles.

1929 Ford Tri-Motor by Fernando Gomes Semedo

Built in March 1928, the 4-AT Tri-Motor Byrd flew to the South Pole had been refitted for the expedition. A heavy-duty engine had been installed on the nose and the plane was modified so that skis could be attached for landings on ice. Extra fuel tanks were also added. Besides the Tri-Motor, Byrd took three other planes on the expedition. The planes were dismantled and placed aboard ships for the expedition to the Ross Shelf, south of New Zealand. As weeks passed, Byrd placed supply depots on the direct route to the South Pole. Then on that day in late November 1929, when an advance meteorological unit radioed the message: “Visibility Clear,” the Floyd Bennett was pulled out of its hangar and readied to make history.

Several years later, on a second expedition to the South Pole, Byrd chipped the stranded Floyd Bennett out of the ice, cleaned the engines and started it. He loaded it on the stern of his boat, returning it to the United States. Today, it is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, read Michigan History and Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit If you’d like to see how these cool planes were made and also see them in flight, follow this link to Ford Tri-motor videos on YouTube (even a video of stunt pilot in one!).

Fernando Gomes Semedo is a secondary school teacher in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario who is involved with the forums and writes the motorsports column for “The Universal Car” newsletter that is published by the International Ford History Project.

Jerry Linengar: Five Months in Space

Michigan Astronaut Jerry LinengerJerry Linenger is one of more than a dozen Michiganians who have been (or still are) astronauts. Born in 1955 in Eastpoint (a Detroit suburb), Linengar graduated from East Detroit High School and earned a degree from Wayne State University. After many years of hard work, schooling and experience in the military, Linengar was accepted into the U.S. astronaut program in August 1992.

On January 12, 1997, Linengar and a crew of six astronauts blasted off aboard the space shuttle Atlantis for the Russian space station, Mir. (Mir is a Russian word that can mean both peace and world.) From 1986 until 2001, Mir was the Earth’s first long-term research station where astronauts from many countries worked and lived.

When Linengar arrived at Mir, he learned quickly that despite careful planning, unexpected things happen. On his forty-second day aboard Mir, a fire broke out. “The smoke was immediate. It was dense. . . . I could see a shadowy figure of the person in front of me . . . but I really couldn’t make him out,” Linengar said. The crew rushed to put on oxygen masks. The commander fought for 90 long seconds to get the fire out. Even then, the module was dark with smoke and soot, and the temperature reached 100 degrees. “You can’t escape the smoke. You can’t just open a window to ventilate the room,” another crewmember later commented.

On April 29, Linengar went outside the space station for a five-hour spacewalk. He tested a new spacesuit, installed monitors and performed other tasks that he had spent countless hours practicing. The spacewalk was an amazing experience and the most poignant memory from his time in space. Linengar later recalled, “You are not in water, but on a cliff. . . . The whole cliff is falling and you are on it. You convince yourself that it is okay . . . to be falling because when you look out you see no bottom. You just fall and fall . . . as the cliff rotates, you feel as if you reached the crest of a roller coaster. . . . You flip headfirst out of your seat . . . you want to flip back upright. You can’t. You decide it is okay to be diving headfirst into nothing.”

Linengar returned to Earth on May 24, 1997, after spending 132 days aboard Mir. At the time, it was the longest time spent in space by any American male. At a speed of 18,000 miles per hour, he logged 50 million miles around the Earth–that’s 2,000 orbits! Jerry Linenger retired from NASA in 1998 and currently lives in northern Michigan.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, read Michigan History and Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

For more about Jerry Linengar, check out his bio from NASA, a Q&A with Jerry from Nova, Jerry’s letters to his son from Mir (which later became one of his books) and the Wikipedia entry for Jerry Linenger.

Michigan History: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

March is Women’s History month–a perfect time to recognize one of the state’s earliest multi-cultural authors. Jane Schoolcraft was a skilled 19th century writer, whose accomplishments are overshadowed by her more-famous husband, Henry.

The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the SkyBorn in 1800 at Sault Ste Marie, Jane was the third child of the union of an Ojibwa woman and an Irish father. Jane’s mother, Oshauguscodawaqua (which means “woman of the green prairie”) was descended from a venerate Indian family; her father, John Johnston, immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1762.

Married in the early 1790s, the Johnsons settled in Sault Ste. Marie after the birth of their first son in 1793. According to one historian, the Johnson household, which eventually included eight children, “was known for its hospitality to strangers and its evening of storytelling.” John Johnson’s desire to have his children read and Oshauguscodawaqua’s skills at telling stories inspired Jane to start writing poetry. However, Jane’s “main motivation to produce literature” came after she met Henry Schoolcraft. Geologist, explorer and Indian agent, Schoolcraft settled in Sault Ste. Marie in 1822. The following year, Jane and Henry were married.

The early years were among the happiest of the Schoolcraft marriage. Both Jane and Henry worked together collecting stories and writing poetry for publication. As her husband’s responsibilities (including becoming a member of the Michigan territorial government) took him from home for long stretches of time, their union suffered. The mother of three children by 1830, Jane also struggled when her husband began questioning her Native American heritage. Henry faulted Jane for lacking a “proper” upbringing because her mother was not Euro-American. Jane consoled herself by writing devotional poetry, before turning to other topics, including questioning the Euro-American notions of a “proper” woman’s role. Jane also told one traveling author that women were “more valued in Indian culture than they were in white culture.”

In 1833 the Schoolcrafts moved to Mackinac Island. Although she continued to write, the stresses of family life took their toil. An addiction to opium may have led to Jane’s premature death in 1842. Although Henry was in Europe when his wife died, he wrote their fifteen-year-old daughter that the news was “heart rending.” Jane Schoolcraft was buried in Ancaster, Ontario, where she had been visiting her sister when she died. For unknown reasons, Henry refused his mother-in-law’s request to have Jane’s remains re-interred in Sault Ste. Marie.

To learn about other women in Michigan’s past, visit or call (800) 366-3703 and ask about Michigan History’s special back issue “Women.”

You can read more about Jane Johnston Schoolcraft from the River of History Museum in the Eastern UP and in Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Obahbahmwawageezhagoquay) Biography at Canku Ota.

Photo credit: Cover of The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Robert Dale Parker, Editor (University of Pennsylvania Press). Looks like an interesting book:

Introducing a dramatic new chapter to American Indian literary history, this book brings to the public for the first time the complete writings of the first known American Indian literary writer, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (her English name) or Bamewawagezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name), Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky (1800-1842). Beginning as early as 1815, Schoolcraft wrote poems and traditional stories while also translating songs and other Ojibwe texts into English. Her stories were published in adapted, unattributed versions by her husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a founding figure in American anthropology and folklore, and they became a key source for Longfellow’s sensationally popular The Song of Hiawatha.

Black History Month: Michigan’s Own James Earl Jones

He has one of the most recognizable voices in the entertainment business and it all began with a grapefruit and a dedicated teacher. James Earl Jones was born in Mississippi in 1931. His parents separated before his birth and his grandparents raised him. When Jones was five, his family moved to Michigan and settled in the small town of Dublin, in Manistee County.

James Earl JonesThe trauma of his young life left Jones with a serious – almost incapacitating – stuttering problem. For years, he refused to speak more than a few words-even to his family. In school, Jones pretended to be mute and communicated by writing. That was until Donald Crouch, a Manistee High School English teacher, helped him overcome his debilitating problem. Crouch challenged his students to write a poem. Jones wrote his “Ode to Grapefruit” in the epic meter of Henry Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” Crouch then challenged Jones to read the poem before his classmates. He read it flawlessly. With Crouch’s encouragement, Jones competed in debates and oratorical contests. As a senior, he won a public-speaking contest and earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

Jones planned to study medicine, but he was attracted to the theatre. After graduating in 1953 with a degree in drama, he arrived in New York City to pursue an acting career. It wasn’t easy. Jones scrubbed floors, lived on $19 a month and sought the few opportunities available to black actors.

After a series of lesser roles, Jones won acclaim in the mid-1960s for his lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick cast Jones in Dr. Strangelove, his first movie. In 1968, Jones won a Tony award for his Broadway performance of The Great White Hope, a story based on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. Two years later, the film version won Jones an Oscar nomination.

Jones has appeared in more than fifty films, returns regularly to the live theatre and provided the voice of villain Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. Today, James Earl Jones is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors and one of its most distinctive voices.

To learn more about other important African Americans in Michigan, order the book African Americans You Need to Know or subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

James Earl Jones photo courtesy Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

Black History Month: Fighting for Equality in Michigan

Fannie Richards & William FergusonDuring the mid-nineteenth century, Michigan’s African American population was quite small in number. In 1860, about 7,000 blacks lived in Michigan-less than 1 percent of the state’s population. Although white Michiganians supported the destruction of slavery that came with the end of the Civil War, most were unenthusiastic about giving blacks equal rights. Three years after the war had ended, Michigan voters rejected the idea of giving blacks the right to vote by an overwhelming margin. (Black males received the right to vote a few years later with the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment.) Despite being relegated to second-class citizens, Fannie Richards and William Ferguson, among other African Americans, fought for equal rights.Born in Virginia about 1840, Fannie M. Richards moved to Detroit with her family in the 1850s. She received her early education in the Detroit public schools before going to Toronto, Ontario, where she studied English, history and drawing. Returning to Detroit, Richards opened a private school for African Americans in 1863. Two years later, she was appointed to teach in Detroit’s segregated Colored School No. 2. In 1869, Richards and others, including future Republican governor John Bagley, filed suit with the Michigan Supreme Court, arguing that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The court agreed, and in 1871 Richards became the first African American teacher in Detroit’s newly integrated school system.

Born in 1857 and the son of one of Detroit’s earliest African American doctors, William Ferguson attended Detroit public schools and successfully pursued careers in printing, real estate and law. After being kicked out of a Detroit restaurant for refusing to sit in the “colored” section, Ferguson filed a discrimination suit. He lost, but appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1890 the court ruled segregation by race in public facilities was illegal. A few years later, Ferguson won election to the Michigan House of Representatives-the first African American to serve in the Michigan legislature. A Republican, Ferguson was reelected to a second term where he was instrumental in having legislation adopted that made discrimination in selling life insurance illegal.

PHOTO CREDIT: Archives of Michigan.
To learn more about other African Americans in Michigan, order the book 25 African Americans You Need to Know and subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

Michigan History: St. Joseph – Wedding Capital, U.S.A.

fountain in the woods by catzinahat

Las Vegas boasts that it is America’s “wedding capital.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Michigan, especially the Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph, was the “wedding capital of the Midwest.” Michigan marriage laws did not require residency, allowed people to marry at the age of 18 and did not require any witnesses other than the county clerk, his wife or an assistant and the presiding officials.

The result was that hundreds of amorous couples, especially from Chicago, boarded a steamer for the four-hour trip to St. Joseph. Most couples chose Sunday to get married. Traveling to St. Joseph for a quickie marriage became so popular that the Chicago Tribune reported more steamboats had to be added to this “rapid matrimonial transit.” At times, crowding at the Chicago docks became so bad that “it required a squad of policemen . . . to restrain the bridal couples from pushing each other into the Chicago River in a frenzied effort to get into the boat.”

Once in St. Joseph, the couples sought the county clerk, justices of the peace and the clergy–all of whom performed marriages any day of the week–”day or night.” Newspaper accounts reported wedding ceremonies being performed at 2:00 A.M. The ceremonies usually took little time; the record time for performing a marriage was thirty seconds.

Eventually, quickie marriages caused the Michigan secretary of state to lament about the “development of the famous ‘St. Joseph marriage industry.’” Opposition forces finally changed the state law. Couples would have to wait five days after taking out a license before they could be married. On August 27, 1925, Michigan’s reign as the Midwest’s marriage capital came to an end.

For the full story on Michigan’s “weekend weddings” see the January/February 2007 issue of Michigan History magazine. For more information, a free trial issue, or to learn about Michigan History for Kids magazine call (800) 366-3703 or visit

Update: Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry did a Valentine’s Day interview with St. Joseph librarian, Alicia Allen about the history and then reflects on love and marriage in Michigan in his essay.

More St. Joseph links and articles at Absolute Michigan keyword “St. Joseph”!