Frankenmuth, the little Bavarian city to our north, lost two of its most influential and beloved citizens this fall. On October 16, Irene Bronner of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland passed away at the age of 95, leaving behind a loving family, a supportive community and a world famous shop offering holiday wonders for all. Then, just three days later on October 19, prominent Frankenmuth businesswoman, Judy Zehnder Keller passed away. She was 77.
Many of us in Greater Flint have fond memories of exploring Bronner’s and enjoying meals at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant & Lodge, and neither would exist if it weren’t for the influence and dedication of these two treasured women. We at MCM consider Frankenmuth a part of Greater Flint and are honored to offer this tribute.
Honoring the True Meaning of Christmas
In Greater Flint and throughout the State of Michigan, the Bronner name is synonymous with Christmas. Founded in Frankenmuth by Wallace “Wally” Bronner in 1951 as a combination sign-painting business and Christmas decoration retailer, Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland soon grew from a trio of small shops to the 45-acre holiday experience it is today. With 350 decorated Christmas trees, over 6,000 different ornaments to choose from and over 50,000 trims and gifts displayed, it is the largest Christmas-themed store in the world. And, at Wally’s side for its creation and establishment was his guiding light and wife, Irene. “She was with him when it all began,” says her daughter, Carla Bronner Spletzer. “My mother was part of the heart and soul of both Bronner’s and Frankenmuth. She was beloved by the staff and the community.”
“My mother treasured the real meaning of Christmas. ‘After all’ she would say, ‘faith and Jesus are the reasons we are all here.’”
Carla Bronner Spletzer
Born Irene Pretzer in 1927 in Hemlock, MI, she became a teacher in Frankenmuth before meeting Wally Bronner in 1951. After they married, she dedicated her time to helping him build and maintain Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland. “Faith, family and the Christian community were of main importance to her,” explains daughter Carla. “She treasured the real meaning of Christmas. ‘After all’ she would say, ‘faith and Jesus are the reasons we are all here.’”
Throughout the years, Irene’s influence continued to guide the store’s direction from a seat on the board of directors and leadership positions up until and after Wally passed in 2008. She also served as a member of the St. Lorenz Evangelism team for over 30 years, was a past president of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary Guild and a former Saginaw Valley Zone Walther League president. She played an active role in the establishment and continued works of the Wallace and Irene Bronner Family Charitable Foundation, helping many humanitarian causes such as the Salvation Army, rescue missions, soup kitchens and others. Giving back and following her faith was a big part of her life throughout its entirety, from making donations through the Foundation to playing piano for those in care at the Lutheran Home in Frankenmuth for nearly 40 years. “My mother loved music and learned piano at an early age,” Carla shares. “She loved singing in the choir and playing for residents of the Lutheran Home.”
Through all of the busy times, she always made room for family. “She loved the grandkids and all of her family immensely,” says Carla. “The top priority was always faith and family. The family pretzel bakes are some of my fondest memories. About 15 of us would get together, make the dough and roll the pretzels. It became one of our favorite traditions.”
Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland is a magical place for adults and children alike and as folks from all over make their yearly pilgrimages to Frankenmuth, Bronner’s is a must-stop. Every nativity scene, bulb, light and decoration holds a small piece of the spirit, love and warmth that Irene Bronner dedicated to the season throughout her life. “One of her favorite things was to see the joy that the store brings to both visitors and staff,” adds Carla. “She loved seeing their faces light up with Christmas and joy.”
Judy Zehnder Keller
Dedication, Community and Love
With all the success Judy Zehnder Keller had, her daughter Martha Zehnder Kaczynski says she always had time for family. “No matter how busy she was, she would find time for any of us,” she remembers. “We have a tradition that whenever a family member graduates high school, the family makes donuts. When I graduated, she had to oversee a very large event being hosted at the Bavarian Inn. She showed up to the event, did what she needed to do and then left to make donuts with the family. It’s a small thing, but she took the time to always be there.” And, for someone as busy as Judy, time was always in short supply.
“Second to her family, Frankenmuth was her joy. She loved absolutely everything about it.”
Martha Zehnder Kaczynski
As the eldest daughter of Bavarian Inn founders Tiny and Dorothy Zehnder, Judy dedicated over six decades of her life to the Bavarian Inn and Frankenmuth, the city she loved. “The community meant everything to Judy,” says Martha. “Second to her family, Frankenmuth was her joy. She loved absolutely everything about it.”
After officially starting to work at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant in 1960, Judy dedicated her life’s passion to the business and the city. In 1986, she built the Bavarian Inn Lodge and helped develop other family businesses in Frankenmuth such as the Schnitzelbank Shop, Covered Bridge Shop, the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus and numerous retail stores at Frankenmuth River Place Shops. She took great pride in the city, serving on the Frankenmuth Downtown Development Authority for 23 years. “She always worked to make Frankenmuth beautiful and appealing to residents and visitors,” adds Martha. “She helped so many business owners get their start – not for recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.” Judy also served as the first female City Council member, the first female Rotary Club member and president, and as chairperson for the Frankenmuth Sister City Committee for 22 years. Appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, she served two terms on the Michigan Travel Commission and Hotel Board of Directors. In addition, she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Presidential Commission for the German-American Tricentennial, joining the delegation with then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. In June 2022, she designed and donated Frankenmuth’s “Sister City Chair’’ in recognition of the 60th anniversary between Frankenmuth and Gunzenhausen, Germany.
Through all her achievements, Judy remained humble. “Every holiday, we worked to serve our guests,” says Martha. “She loved our guests and our team members. They didn’t work for us; we worked with them. She was successful and held people accountable but was extremely empathetic. I remember her giving the coat she was wearing to an employee who was without one. That’s who she was.”
Of all the lessons Martha learned from her mother, the one that comes most readily to mind is the concept of geduld. “Geduld means patience (in German) and Judy believed that we must have geduld and things will happen,” she explains. “Every team member can tell you all about geduld. It’s just one of the important life lessons we all learned from her.”
Judy Zehnder Keller lived a life of purpose, dedicated to her family, community and the city she loved – a life of inspiration for her family, the people of Frankenmuth and the team. “She was a wonderful, wonderful person,” says Martha. “She made such an impact on peoples’ lives.”
Thank you to both women for the legacies you built for Frankenmuth and Greater Flint. May you rest in peace.