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Kohler--Town That Bathtubs Built : Firm Is Wisconsin Village's Developer, Major Employer

January 07, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

KOHLER, Wis. — It was in 1890 that an Austrian immigrant named John M. Kohler heated a horse trough and sprinkled it with an enamel powder, thus making his first bathtub.

Kohler, who had been making horse troughs and hog scalers in Sheboygan, Wis., since 1873, sold the tub to a farmer for one cow and 14 chickens.

The transaction began Kohler's venture into plumbing. A town grew up around Kohler's business and bore his name. As the company grew and Kohler's heirs went into state politics, the name (pronounced coal-er) became as familiar in Wisconsin parlors and board rooms as in its bathrooms.

Today, Kohler Co. is America's leading manufacturer of plumbing ware. A privately held corporation, it racked up $555 million in sales of bath and plumbing equipment, generators and engines, and earned $36.4 million last year. Its line of products ranges from bathtubs, sinks and toilets to towel bars and drinking fountains. It also makes Whirlpool baths and spas.

Kohlers still run the company--Herbert V. Kohler Jr., John M.'s 47-year-old grandson, is president and chairman--and most of its 250 stockholders are members of the Kohler family.

Has Several Plants

Kohler has 5,300 employees at its headquarters and 191-acre factory complex here in Kohler, which makes it one of Wisconsin's largest manufacturers. Nationwide, it employs 7,200 and has plants in Mosel, Wis., Spartanburg, S.C., and Brownwood, Tex., as well as factories in Canada and Mexico.

Last year the company bought Sterling Faucet Co. of Schaumburg, Ill., its first acquisition.

But Kohler Co. also has been branching away from the plumbing business and since 1981 has had an interest in a huge resort complex.

The American Club resort, across the street from Kohler headquarters, features a hotel-conference center and spreads on to a health club and sports complex situated near a man-made lake, and to an 800-acre nature preserve and hunting club called River Wildlife. Additionally, there are plans for an 18-hole championship golf course on an adjacent 200-acre site.

"The golf course is the latest step in the development of a business, hospitality and recreation focal point in Wisconsin. We want to make our factory town one of America's destination points," company President Kohler said.

The origins of the resort date back to 1918 when the American Club, a red-brick, Tudor-style hotel with a slate roof, first opened as a dormitory and first home for European immigrants who came to Wisconsin to work for Kohler. The American Club contained a cafeteria, pub, bowling alley, barbershop and classrooms where English and American citizenship were taught.

The club was designed and built by Walter J. Kohler Sr., one of John M. Kohler's sons, who was president of the company from 1905 to 1940, and Wisconsin governor from 1929 to 1931. (His son Walter J. Kohler Jr., former director and secretary of the company from 1937 to 1947, was also a Wisconsin governor, serving three terms from 1951 to 1957.)

Hundreds of immigrants lived at the American Club during the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in the 1940s, the dormitory rooms were rented to the public.

By 1979, its days as a dormitory long passed, the American Club was closed and, several million dollars later, was reopened as a 110-room luxury resort and conference center with five gourmet restaurants. Currently, a 52-room addition is under construction.

The guest rooms--each different and named after a famous American--are showcases for Kohler products, such as gold plated or brass faucets and shower heads. All rooms have Kohler Whirlpool baths in marble-lined bathrooms. Some are equipped with a $18,000 environmental habitat--a super sauna with tanning, rain, steam and warm breeze cycles--that is state of the art in plumbing fixtures.

The American Club was only part of the community that the Kohler family built up around its factory. The hotel provided homes for the workers until they could send for their families back in the old country, afford their own home or start a family--some choosing to settle in nearby Sheboygan, others in Kohler Village.

'Workers Deserve Roses'

The village also was the idea of Walter J. Kohler Sr., whose philosophy was that "Workers deserve not only wages but roses as well." He visited garden communities throughout Europe and modeled Kohler Village after them.

Kohler Co. developed the land for the small town, which was laid out along the meandering Sheboygan River. But employees have always bought and owned their own homes along the tree-lined, curving streets.

The village has an elementary school and a high school, churches, a theater and an art center. Today the population of Kohler is only 1,700; its 50-year plan anticipates a population of 50,000 by the year 2030. But there's plenty of room: The company owns 5,300 acres of undeveloped land surrounding the Village.

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