Nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan, the village of Frankfort takes up a little more than a mile from one end to the other. But the town that hardly takes up much space holds a special place in the hearts of those who call it home. Throughout the years, the Benzie County community has capitalized on all that surrounds it, the air, the land, and the water. This is the Story of Frankfort.
It was a safe harbor in a storm that may have brought the first people to what would later become Frankfort in the mid 1800's. But it was what those travelers saw when they hit shore that kept them here and gave this town its name.
While there are a few tales of how the village earned the moniker, Pete Sandman, a local historian, explains "there were a lot of German settlers here in the early days, and they kind of compared it to the beauty of Frankfort Germany." Beauty and Frankfort's first industry in the form of timbering helped this small town grow in the late 1800's. Pete says "the lumbering took part, but one of the unique things with the lumbering in Frankfort is that we had a big hotel called the National, in fact hotels had been on the corner at third and main since 1867. When the lumber jacks got out of the winter and spring, they ended up staying at the hotel until the fall and winter season."
Not only was Frankfort surrounded by trees, but it had a way to get the cut timber out to Lake Michigan. Pete says "they were able to float them down the Betsie River and to the bay. At one time, before the car ferries, they were putting them on big sailboats and shipping them to Milwaukee and Chicago." Sailboats would soon be replaced, and the change would literally put Frankfort on the map.
Railroad magnet James Ashley was one of the first to see potential. He thought there had to be a better and faster way to get goods to and from Frankfort. Pete says "He decided to acquire and build the railroad all the way up to Frankfort. Once he got to Frankfort he saw the west end with Lake Michigan, and he decided lets build some car ferries to haul the freight over and stuff like that, including lumber. So he built two car ferries which were ice breakers in the winter."
Trains arriving on the rails and railcar ferries pulling into port brought more than just goods. One of those trains brought a civil war tribute in the form of a cannon all the way from Fort Pitt. You can still find it today at the beach. As Pete points out, "Not too many towns have a cannon guarding their beach front; we had that since the early 1900's." Lumber, goods, and occasional cannon weren't the only things that arrived in town though; Frankfort's first tourists were also on board. The man who built the rails decided he was missing out on a golden opportunity, so according to Pete, "Ashley decided to build the hotel Frontenac which was a 300 room hotel at the end of Lake Michigan, right near the rail depot. That was built by the same company that built the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. It was suspiciously burnt down in 1912."
Tourists were greeted back then, just as they are today, by Frankfort's most famous landmark. The gateway arch which spans over M 115 these days was actually built at a different location back in 1925 by Joe Winkler. Pete says "He built that by taking stones from the Lake Michigan Beach and building it in honor of the car ferry industry in this town. Winkler has always been reputed to be one of Al Capone's friends."
With the lumber gone, Frankfort turned to the water once again to drive its commerce, and they weren't disappointed. Pete says "In 1930, Frankfort harvested 16,690 pounds of whitefish in a two day period and shipped them to all the restaurants in Chicago and Detroit. The commercial fishing was absolutely huge. There were a lot of families involved in it, as were a lot of families with farming. It started out with peaches and pears, and then it involved to the present day cherries and apples."
But it wasn't just the water and the land that drew people to Frankfort. It was the sky as well. Pete says "there has not been one thing in the history of Frankfort Michigan that has given the town more national attention than soaring." As it turns out, the bluffs, and steady Lake Michigan winds made Frankfort the place to ride breezes in the engineless aircraft. Pete says "They had a national meet in 1938 and two of the people who came here, were two of the great glider pilots of all time, Ted Bellak and Stan Corcoran. Ted and Stan to stay here and start a school for soaring, and a sailplane company. The war came on and we started getting grants to teach collegians how to soar, and to train U.S. Army personnel." For decades even after World War II, folks traveled from around the world to come here and fly.
Today, much of Frankfort's history is seen around town, in historic markers and murals, but there is a part of its past that you can actually taste. Right off the main street is the Frankfort mineral spring. Pete says "they were drilling for salt in the late 1880's, and they hit this mineral water and its perpetuated ever since and people go down and fill up their buckets to drink the mineral water."
Today, Frankfort still capitalizes on all that the things that shaped its past, its land, its air, and its water to make it a truly special place.