Imagine strolling along the tranquil shores of Lake Michigan, where the cozy village of Frankfort sits. The village stretches just over a mile from end to end but is steeped in history. Despite its modest size, Frankfort holds a cherished spot in the hearts of its residents. Folks have embraced everything this corner of Benzie County has to offer, its crisp air, fertile land, and shimmering waters. 

Aerial view of the Betsie River flowing into Lake Michigan in Frankfort, MichiganPrior to European settlement, the area around Frankfort was inhabited by the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. These Native American groups had established villages and hunting grounds in the region for centuries.

European exploration of the Great Lakes region, including what is now Frankfort, began in the 17th century. French fur traders and missionaries were among the first Europeans to arrive in the area.

Frankfort in the 1800s

Back in the mid-1800s, this place served as a safe haven for weary travelers. Maybe that is what drew its first settlers to its welcoming shores. And once they arrived, it is easy to see why they stayed. The village’s name, Frankfort, is said to have been inspired by the beauty of its landscape. Many said it was reminiscent of the picturesque town of Frankfort in Germany. With its abundant timber resources, Frankfort soon became a hub for the lumber industry. In the mid-19th century, the region experienced a significant increase in European-American settlement. The vast forests of Michigan attracted lumbermen who harvested timber to supply growing cities like Chicago. Frankfort became an important port for shipping timber and became known for its sawmills.

Aerial view of the lighthouse in Frankfort MichiganFrankfort was officially incorporated as a village in 1867. Over the years, it continued to grow and develop. Many businesses and infrastructure served the lumber industry and the local community.

But it was not just the forests that fueled Frankfort’s growth. The Betsie River provided a natural pathway for transporting timber to Lake Michigan. From there it could be shipped to bustling cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. The arrival of railroad tycoon James Ashley further transformed Frankfort. He recognized the potential for a more efficient transportation system. His vision led to the construction of rail lines and car ferries. He connected Frankfort to larger markets bringing prosperity to the town.

As goods flowed in and out of Frankfort, so did people, including tourists eager to experience the town’s charms. The construction of the grand Hotel Frontenac, reminiscent of the famous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, signaled the beginning of Frankfort’s tourism industry. And let’s not forget about the cannon standing guard on the beach, a reminder of Frankfort’s storied past.

The decline of the lumber industry

Sand Dune Bluffs in Frankfort MichiganWith the decline of the lumber industry in the late 19th century, Frankfort turned to other sources of livelihood, including commercial fishing and agriculture. The town’s abundant waters teemed with whitefish, while its fertile soil yielded an array of fruits, from peaches and pears to cherries and apples.

To adapt to the changing economic landscape, Frankfort, like many other northern Michigan communities, started to focus on tourism. The beautiful natural surroundings of the area, including Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, attracted visitors. The town’s scenic beaches and recreational opportunities helped establish it as a popular vacation destination.

But perhaps one of Frankfort’s most unique attractions lies in the sky. Thanks to its towering bluffs and steady winds, Frankfort became a haven for glider enthusiasts. For decades Frankfort has attracted gliders from far and wide. The Northwest Soaring Club operated out of Frankfort until 2011 when it moved to the Wexford Airport.

In 1938 a national meet was held and two of the greatest glider pilots of all time arrived in Frankfort, Ted Bellak and Stan Corcoran. They loved the area and decided to stay and start a school for soaring and a the Frankfort Sailplane Company.

When the war came, they got grants to teach collegians to soar and to train U.S. Army personnel. The company built the U.S. Army‘s first military training glider, the Frankfort Cinema or TG-1. 

Frankfort Today

Aerial View of Downtown Frankfort MichiganFrankfort is a charming and vibrant town known for its picturesque location on Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. It offers outdoor activities, such as boating, fishing, and hiking, and maintains a sense of its historical heritage. The town also features quaint shops, restaurants, and cultural events, making it a popular destination for both tourists and residents seeking a peaceful and scenic getaway.

Traces of Frankfort’s rich history can be found throughout the town, from its historic markers to its mineral spring, where visitors can still taste the waters that have flowed through Frankfort’s past. And as it continues to embrace its natural beauty and heritage, Frankfort remains a truly special place, where the land, air, and water converge to create a timeless charm.

Learn more about the rich history of the Northwest Lower Peninsula.