A native of Carroll County, Frank Zinnel was born on March 5, 1864, in Lanark, the son of Henry and Kate (Framm) Zinnel.
When two years old, he moved with his parents to Fair Haven Township where he was reared on a farm and educated in the country schools. In 1887, the family moved to Chadwick and he and his father built a blacksmith shop, Chadwick’s first business, and the first house in town. Henry also had a cider mill in his shop, and a combination woodworking shop.
In 1888 Frank became a salesman for the Warder, Bushnell and Glessner Co. of Chicago. Moving to back to Chadwick in the fall of 1890, he built a store and opened a hardware business. Two years later he sold the store and built two large brick buildings on Main Street and continued in hardware until 1899.
Mr. Zinnel was married in Chadwick to Miss Ida Shore, and had one daughter, Alma, born September 10, 1891.
While in the hardware business he built a telephone line to Fair Haven and also put in an electric light plant in Chadwick. In 1899 he sold the hardware business and built a telephone line to Lanark, put in an exchange there and then extended the line to Shannon and Milledgeville with exchanges in each town. He also bought out the telephone plant at Mt. Carroll and rebuilt the entire system.
In 1900 he moved with his family to Savanna where he secured a franchise and built a telephone system there. This completed, he had a system with an exchange in every town in Carroll County. In 1902 Zinnel incorporated the system as a stock company named Carroll County Independent Telephone Company himself as president and general manager. In 1911, the company had 3,000 subscribers in Carroll County. It also had Bell toll service which gave the people connections with any telephone from Maine to California.
He also was an extensive property owner in Chadwick and Savanna, having a half interest in an exclusive hotel at Excelsior Springs, Mo. For his own pleasure he had an elegant and well-fitted pleasure launch on the Mississippi.
While in Savanna he was also the first Ford dealer with a building on Main Street and built a home at the intersection of Keller and Chicago Avenue in 1902 that included Savanna’s first attached garage to store a car.
Zinnel was friends with Henry Ford when the pioneer auto maker struggled to gain a foothold with his first gas buggy.
Convinced that the horse was doomed and cars were the next wave of the future, Zinnel sold his hardware business and opened a car dealership in Savanna on Main Street. He became sales agent for the first cars Ford marketed a small Model “S” and Model “N”. On a trip to Detroit in 1903 Ford offered Zinnel a chance to invest $5,000 to help him build the first Model T’s.
Zinnel, who had $5,000, said he promised to think it over and returned to Savanna. A few weeks later, three pioneer Model T’s were delivered to Savanna’s railroad station.
Zinnel said the rear ends fell apart when he attempted to drive the cars to his garage. The next time he saw Ford, he told him “I will never put in my money with a man who can’t build a car any better than that. Those famous last words of mine came back to haunt my dreams for years,” Zinnel told a San Diego newspaper after the death of Henry Ford in 1947. He would have become one of the initial investors in the Ford Motor Company and his $5,000 would have purchased 50 shares of the young company
In 1913, he sold out his car dealership in Savanna and moved to San Diego, California, and founded the Zinnel Auto Loan Company, the first local firm of its kind until his retirement in 1939. He continued to reside in California until his death on Aug. 9, 1951 at age 87. He is buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego.
Frank Zennel's Ford business on Savanna's 40 block of west Main Street.