From 1920 to 1933 Prohibition was the law of the land. America embarked on a grand experiment to ban alcohol sales across the country. It created such problems that by 1933 the law was reversed. Frankenmuth is a major footnote in Prohibition’s checkered history.
It all started on July 30, 1930. Zehnder’s Restaurant, along with many other dining establishments at the time, served beer to its patrons. Problem was, you couldn’t outright sell it so restaurant owners often had “code words” for local diners to order beer.
If you wanted beer at Zehnder’s, one would order “hot tea”. Well…you probably already guessed, on July 30, 1930; a U.S. Treasury agent stopped by Zehnder’s for lunch and ordered hot tea with his lunch. Within a few hours (no cell phones back then) law enforcement agents, including Treasury, state police and the local sheriff’s department descended on Frankenmuth and raided both Zehnder’s and the Fischer Hotel (now Bavarian Inn) across the street.
Between the two operations they confiscated about four dozen quarts of beer.
William & Emilie Zehnder along with Herman & Lydia Fischer were promptly arrested and taken to the Saginaw County jail where they all spent the night.
Now, the normal fine for selling illegal alcohol was between $100 and $200. So… it came as a stunning surprise when a District Judge in Detroit, who was tired of all the violations to Prohibition; decided to set an example and fined the Zehnders $5,000 and the Fischers $8,000 because they had more beer on hand.
It was Depression times and no one had $100 much less thousands of dollars! It took years for the Zehnder family to pay off the fine which was lowered to $3,000 under an agreement that allowed Treasury agents to chop up the beautiful hand-carved bar. In reality they should have chopped up the tea pots!
Devastating to both families, but in later years Grandma Zehnder would laugh about the bedbugs overrunning the jail and how she had to take several baths to get rid of them.
If you’re ever on Jeopardy and the question is “Who received the largest fine during Prohibition?” you now know the answer.