Display in the Kohler Design Center, Kohler, Wisc.

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The Getaway Guys recall Sheboygan as being synonymous with a culinary experience to their liking, but during their recent adventure they did not munch brats or quaff mugs of suds. What they ate up was a remarkable arts complex in Sheboygan and a memorable design center in Kohler. Both guys had been to Kohler, toured the Kohler Design Center and stayed at the American Club. Neil had also visited the Kohler Arts Center, but Alan did not remember ever being in Sheboygan.

Sheboygan and Kohler share a common heritage and benefit from the largess of a dynastic empire built on toilets and sinks.  Like other communities situated on the west side of Lake Michigan, Sheboygan owes its existence to geography and its access to waterborne transport.  New England lumbermen and trappers settled the town in the 1830s; by mid-century immigrant German, Dutch and Irish cheese makers had turned their craft into a prominent industry. By 1875 Sheboygan had a population of about 7,000. It had increased to 16,300 by 1890, which helped foster the growth of manufacturing not solely dependent on animal husbandry.  In 1873 John Michael Kohler arrived in Sheboygan, and the rest is history (coincidentally, Mr. Kohler was descended from Austrian cheese-makers).

A Chicago-based furniture salesman, Mr. Kohler met and married Lillie Vollrath of Sheboygan, whose father was an iron-founder. Mr. Kohler would immerse himself in the foundry business, using his entrepreneurial skill to achieve eventual success as a manufacturer of tubs, sinks and toilets. Challenging the trade leaders, Crane and Standard, Mr. Kohler was in a position by 1900 to move his operation four miles west to Riverside (now Kohler, Wis.). He died unexpectedly in November of the same year, and four months later (February 1901) the new facility was gutted by fire. It was the beginning of the company’s difficulties. 

Principal shareholders quickly bailed out, two key family members died unexpectedly and when Walter Kohler became president in 1905 at age 30, the company was saddled with debt. Unique as a person and industrialist, Walter led the company until 1940. He had had no formal education beyond the eighth grade, but was a self-taught man of skill and ingenuity and a disciple of John Ruskin. He thought Ruskin’s “Life without labor is guilt, labor without art is brutality,” a philosophy worth embracing, which may explain the Kohler family’s devotion to and support for the arts.

In 1912 Walter initiated the transformation of Riverside into the planned community of Kohler.  Following in the footsteps of past industrialists, he created a company town dedicated to decent housing and support services to produce better workers and products.  Today’s American Club (419 Highlands Drive) was formerly a dormitory for unmarried male workers; by the mid-1920s housing was added for married workers.

Sheboygan’s Kohler Center for the Arts is one of the most interesting places the Getaway Guys have visited. Situated just east of downtown and occupying a city block, it is a state-of-the-art facility devoted to contemporary art and an astounding collection and display of Outsider Art (a common descriptive appellation the Kohler Center avoids). 

By any name, Outsider Art is a quirky niche populated by self-taught artists who express their innermost thoughts through cross-disciplinary means, often of their own invention.  Frequently using unconventional materials and techniques alien to those with formal art training, “outsiders” (also called folk artists) past and present produce works of intuitive and penetrating perception. Often hard to decipher, these works can be surprisingly communicative – a kind of artwork those with formal training cannot duplicate. Alan was mesmerized; Neil could only think of hours spent in studio classes learning how to draw properly.

Wrapping up their Kohler adventure, the Guys spent the remainder of their visit exploring the Kohler Design Center in Kohler. Part company history museum and part glamorous showroom, this facility is something to behold. With displays that range from modest indoor plumbing of the early 20th century to sybaritic bathing and meal preparation pleasures 100 years later, it is thought-provoking and fun to see. The showroom is mind-boggling. From noiseless toilets consuming practically no water to exquisite sinks magically dispensing it and showers reminiscent of the theme song from “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (“Raindrops keep falling on my head”), the innovative design features of the Kohler Company abound.

For lunch, the Guys ate at Jumes, a downtown joint with no brats and no beer, but where the food was ample and inexpensive. Those staying at the American Club in Kohler have a variety of dining options. The best and most unique (in Neil’s opinion) is River Wildlife, a private and intimate facility serving excellent fare in a rustic ambiance.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.
com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often
overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.