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Destination Kohler: from a horse trough to a 5-star resort complex

The American Club, Kohler, Wisconsin
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The Village of Kohler is in southeastern Wisconsin’s Sheboygan County. This popular Midwestern vacation spot is about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee and 2 1/2 hours from Chicago.

Innovation and industriousness runs deep in this state that leads the nation in dairy farms and skilled manufacturing jobs. J. M. Kohler saw opportunity when he combined the two and built a plumbing fixture empire from a water trough. The village that developed grew into a grand vacation destination.

In 1854, ten-year-old John Michael Kohler came from Austria with his family to a dairy farm in Minnesota. Less than twenty years later, in 1873, after working as a traveling furniture salesman, he and a partner bought out his father-in-law’s Sheboygan foundry and machine shop that manufactured cast iron farm implements.

In 1883, Kohler added four legs to their enameled cast iron water trough and sold it to a farmer as a bathtub in exchange for fourteen pigs and a cow. By 1891 he was producing roll-rimmed bathtubs, washbowls, and drinking fountains.

Kohler Company was the first to offer a complete solution for kitchen and baths—sink, toilets, faucets, and tubs. In 1900 the factory was moved a few miles west to Riverside. After J. M. Kohler’s death in 1927 Riverside was renamed the Village of Kohler.

His oldest sons Robert, Walter, and Carl were to take over the business, but Carl died in 1904 at age 24 and Robert died in 1905 at age 32. Walter J. Kohler, Sr. became president and expanded the company. He realized that the workers needed a suitable place to live and wanted the village to grow in an orderly fashion with not only industrial, residential and commercial zones but also gardens and boulevards.

He traveled to England in 1913 with an architect friend and met with Ebenezer Howard, founder of the English garden city movement that brought economic opportunities to a rural area by creating a self-sufficient city owned by a private corporation. They traveled throughout England, the Netherlands, and Germany for inspiration for what was to become one of the first planned communities in the United States.

Kohler eventually hired the Olmsted Brothers of Boston, who designed the Harvard University campus, Central Park, and the Emerald Necklace around Boston. They developed a 50-year master plan for the the green spaces of the garden community.

The elegant red brick and slate-roofed Tudor-style American Club, now a 5-star resort and spa with championship golf courses, was built In 1918 with dormitories, a dining area, billiards, bowling, a barbershop and a tavern.

A broad, tree-lined boulevard separates it from the factory.

Evening and Saturday classes on English reading, writing, speaking and the American government were offered in The American Club so workers could become citizens who were integrated into American society.

On Kohler’s annual Americanization Day, employees were taken to the Sheboygan County courthouse to file citizenship papers. Those who passed the test were given a limousine ride home. The oak-paneled hallway to The American Club’s main dining room is still lined with portraits of immigrants who made contributions to state history.

Kohler also established a savings and loan company. His newly-constructed houses were sold at cost so workers could  buy them and send for their families.

The company went on to produce generators and engines. The generators they donated for Admiral Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica still worked when Byrd returned after a five year absence and supplied all his heat, light and communication. In appreciation, an Antarctic mountain range is named for the Kohler family. The company also built parts for World War 2 torpedoes and Viet Nam War helicopters.

After the need for immigrant housing waned in the 1970s, Kohler wanted the American Club to have a permanent place as a hospitality house. A second environmentally-sensitive 50-year master growth plan designed for residents and visitors by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was completed in 1977. Destination Kohler evolved into a one-stop vacation destination with the finest accommodations, dining and spa experiences, and activities.

The revitalized American Club opened in 1981 and is now a Forbes 5-star and AAA 5-diamond ranked hotel, one of only 48 hotels in the world with both designations. It is steeped in tradition and was added to National Historic Register in 1980s.

Every item in the public areas, from the antiques to the renowned Kohler chocolates, has Mr. Kohler’s approval.

Garden tours are open to the public.

The decor is unique in each room or suite of the American Club and each room has a namesake. This one is named for Milwaukee native William S. Harley, one of the founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and features Harley-Davidson photographs  and articles on the wall.

Guests who stay in one of the adjacent and more contemporary Carriage House’s 186 adults-only guest rooms can enjoy breakfast, afternoon tea, and hors d’oeuvres as well as the luxurious Kohler Waters Spa on the first floor. The plush American Club robes are suitable attire in the Carriage House throughout the day.

Where to better experience therapeutic water treatments than in Kohler Waters Spa? It is one of only forty-eight 5-star spas worldwide and offers a full range of services. The water-inspired treatment rooms are places to enjoy options like the Signature treatment, Lavender Rain, paired with Kohler Custom Vichy showers, bodyspray showering, or the jetted RiverBath. The American Club guest rooms and suites also feature range of Kohler specialty tubs and showers.

There are a dozen or so Destination Kohler places to dine, from the the greenhouse, shipped piece-by-piece from England, that serves homemade ice cream and complimentary morning coffee and tea to the rustic log cabin by a hardwood forest, River Wildlife’s Lodge Restaurant.

Elegant European-influenced American cuisine is served in the romantic  AAA Four-Diamond Immigrant Restaurant & Winery, recipient of Wine Spectator’s Best Award of Excellence. Its specialty tea menu reads like a fine wine list and the Winery Bar has nearly five hundred wine options, all rated 88 and above by Wine Spectator. The six rooms honor the early French, Dutch, German, Normandy, Danish, and English settlers. The Immigrant Restaurant’s Tasting Menu is an ultimate experience in fine dining that might begin with rare Russian Imperial Osetra Caviar, formerly available exclusively to the Russian czars. ($115 for 5 courses, $180 for seven courses; $230 and $330, respectively, with wine pairings)

The American Club’s 5-star dine-around held July 2, 2015 featured five courses. Each was paired with wine and served in a different Kohler restaurant. ($99)

The Wisconsin Room, the original dining hall of immigrant workers, serves farm-to-table meals. It is renowned for its Friday Night Seafood Buffet ($42) and Sunday Brunch ($34)

The workers’ former pub is now the casual Horse & Plow, a place to relax with a brew or an Arnold Palmer, which is half lemonade and half iced tea. Munch some fried cheese curds and pretzels or a sandwich like the H&P Reuben or the American Club. Tabletops are made of reclaimed wood from the former bowling alley.

Those seeking a sweet treat, and, perhaps, a light meal, head for Craverie Chocolatier Café on Wood Lake, where handmade chocolate can be paired with the perfect beer or wine.

Product development is a key part of Chocolatier Anette Righi DeFendi’s work. This includes fulfilling Mr. Kohler’s ideas.  They say the chocolate peanut butter creation surpasses Reese’s flavor and the Terrapin, the shop’s signature chocolate, is the world’s best chocolate turtle.

The success of the American Club led to the creation of two nationally recognized championship golf courses designed by the legendary Pete Dye to challenge the experts and test the amateur.

Blackwolf Run, one of Dye’s consummate achievements, consists of 36 holes on two championship courses. It winds through Wisconsin’s natural terrain of meadows and ravines. It has hosted such professional championships as the Andersen Consulting World Golf Championships in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and 2012.

Dine at its rustic American grill can be by the roaring fire its massive fieldstone fireplace or al fresco on the terrace with a panoramic view of the golf course

The windswept terrain of Whistling Straits’ two world-class courses were created on a formerly flat military camp along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Roaming sheep, massive sand dune bunkers, and fescue fairways are reminiscent of Irish or Scottish links courses. Its Irish Pub serves favorites like fish ’n’ chips, rack of lamb, and sticky toffee pudding.

Whistling Straits will host the PGA Championship this summer for the third time and the Ryder Cup in 2020.

Kohler Company also owns AA 5-star Old Course Hotel Golf Resort and Spa in St. Andrews, Scotland.

A visit would not be complete without the free three-hour “Industry in Action” factory tour of the actual Pottery, Brass Building, Foundry and Enamel Shop,offered Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. See the production in progress, things like secret-formula enamel powder being heated to 1700° to coat some of the 1200 tubs produced daily.No photos are allowed in this area.

The tour includes the art and artists’ factory workshops of the Kohler’s Artists-in-Residence or Arts/Industry program.It provides 16 to 22 selected participants per year with room, board, transportation, and material for two to six months so that they can create new works. The artists get to use the facilities and learn techniques from industrial craftsmen in Kohler Company’s Iron and Brass Foundries, Enamel Shop, and Pottery.

In return, each artist leaves behind two creations. There are now over 400 pieces in the collection, many along the walking path or the Kohler Design Center.

The tour ends at the Kohler Design Center, which is filled with kitchen and bath ideas and provides design services. It is free and open to the public daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There are kitchen and bath displays by top designers, including every kind of kitchen sink, bathroom lavatory, toilet, shower or tub imaginable for creating a spa-like retreat, like the Riverbath whirlpool tub or programmable DTV touch screen multi-head experience showers can be seen in action.

The center’s lower level features the history of the company and its product lines through the decades.

Privately held Kohler is now a global company that employs over 30,000 employees in fifteen countries, about 6,000 in Kohler, Wisconsin. It also owns Baker fine furniture, pieces of which are found throughout the American Club.. In June, 2015, fourth generation David Kohler, became CEO. His father, father Herbert B. Kohler, Jr. remains as Chairman of the Board and oversees the hospitality and real estate group.

Prices listed are as of July, 2015 and subject to change.

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