William “Tiny” Zehnder was born on April 6, 1919 to William and Emilie (Bickel) Zehnder who were farmers in Frankenmuth. He went to grade school in Frankenmuth and attended Arthur Hill High School, graduating in 1937.
William and Emilie sold their farm in 1928 and bought the Exchange Hotel, naming it Zehnder’s.
Tiny had worked on the farm picking up food scraps for the pigs at the Fischer’s Hotel, originally the Union House Hotel. The Fischer’s son, Herman started the concept of “all you can eat family style chicken dinners.” The Fischer’s Hotel was sold to the Zehnder family in 1950. They renamed it the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn.
Tiny met Dorothy Hecht, who was a waitress at Fischer’s Hotel. They married in 1943 and Dorothy and Tiny became the managers of the new business with Dorothy becoming the kitchen manager. Tiny still loved farming and would say he was a farmer with a restaurant hobby. He later raised cattle from Switzerland.
In 1956 the Zehnder family had to make a decision about the hotel as Zehnder’s was losing money, due to a recession. Instead of closing the hotel, they decided to borrow money from the bank and expand Fischer’s and keep both businesses going, adding German accents to the hotel. A week-long celebration was held in 1959 to celebrate the newly designed building. This is now known as the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival. The Bavarian Festival draws 100,000 people to Frankenmuth. In 1991 Zehnder’s held a SnowFest which attracts over 200,000 visitors each year.
Tiny Zehnder along with his brother Eddie was the driving force behind “Michigan’s Little Bavaria” feel of the buildings and Tiny encouraged residents to remodel some of the town’s buildings into a Bavarian village. He and his brother purchased and donated a building to become the Frankenmuth Historical Association Museum and provided financial support to the museum.
The Frankenmuth Airport was renamed William “Tiny” Zehnder Field after Tiny donated land and contributed funds to establish the Frankenmuth Airport. The Zehnders built the Bavarian Inn’s wooden covered bridge crossing the Cass River. It is a unique route to the Heritage Park with land which Tiny helped acquire.
Tiny spearheaded the Indian Memorial Monument and Frankenmuth Mill projects and donated time and money to building the Dehmel Road Bridge and Beyer Road Bridge.
Among the awards Tiny received were the Michigan Historical Association’s Highest Distinction Award, and the Arthur Hill High School Honor Alumnus Award, of which Tiny was very proud. When he was young, he had to miss a lot of school because he was sick. He took pride in the fact that all his children, spouses, and now grandchildren have college degrees.
Tiny’s awards also include the Tourism Pinnacle Award from Saginaw County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Master Entrepreneur Award from Saginaw Valley State University Business and Industrial Development Institute.
His family calls phrases that Tiny used to say “Tiny-isms.” He liked to end all dinner shows at the Bavarian Inn with the song, “God Bless America.” He was not afraid to show love and emotion for his family, friends and team members. He loved hunting and loved his dogs. He would often be working in the kitchen washing dishes so he could see how much food was being thrown away.
His granddaughter Martha Zehnder Keller estimated that in the last 30 years, the Bavarian Inn has had over 5.7 million people stay at the Inn. Some of the decorative woodwork throughout the hotel was carved by craftsmen in Germany. Tiny remained the chairman of the board of the Bavarian Inn until his death. Dorothy Zehnder celebrated her 97th birthday in 2018. She still comes into the kitchen every day to help cook the meals.
William “Tiny” Zehnder and the entire family of four generations had a vision to bring “Little Bavaria” to mid-Michigan. The Zehnder and the Bronner families have fully supported and encouraged others to give to their community, which in turn has benefitted the Great Lakes area. Frankenmuth is one of the top tourist attractions in Michigan, benefitting the Saginaw Valley.
William (Tiny) Zehnder died May 23, 2006 and is buried in the St. Lorenz Cemetery where he built and donated the replica of the first log cabin church and parsonage in the 1800s era.
He was inducted into the Saginaw Hall of Fame in 2015.
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