How a Wisconsin Spa Weekend Taught Me a Lesson in American History

A Birthday Roadtrip Packs a Memorable Civics Punch

Bellmen at The American Club/Andréa R. Vaucher

I didn’t go to Kohler, Wisconsin for a history lesson, but that’s what I got.

I went because it was an easy two-hour drive from Chicago and had a five-star hotel, The American Club with its Kohler Waters Spa. It was my birthday and my friend Alison and I were in the mood for a road trip.

We figured Kohler — as in The Bold Look of Kohler, the company that elevated bathroom design to an art form — would know how to create a memorable hydro-centric spa experience.

We were right.

What we didn’t expect was that a luxury resort — albeit in a company town, created in the early 1900s by a forward-thinking Austrian immigrant and a majority immigrant workforce — would teach us a lesson in American History.

As soon as we left the highway, we realized Kohler was not your average midwestern hamlet. Its perfectly manicured tree-lined streets look like a movie location and boast flora to rival southern California’s in its lushness and abundance. At summer’s end, there were enough shades of green to drive a leprechaun wild.

It turns out that Walter J. Kohler, son of the founder of the Kohler Company — which is still a family business — had hired not just any landscaper to design his eponymous village. He chose Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. And when it came time to do a second round of development, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was hired for the job. So if this Wisconsin backwater looks more like the Harvard campus than nearby Sheboygan, it is by design.

Whistling Straits course/Andréa R. Vaucher

Though I suppose technically you cannot call thousands of acres a backwater, especially if they encompass several hotels, world-class restaurants, private lakes, a sports center to rival the best in any cosmopolitan city and four golf courses — one a riff on the Old Course in Scotland (Kohler also owns The Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews) and another, Whistling Straits, a links course where every hole offers dramatic views of Lake Michigan.

River Wildlife/Andréa R. Vaucher

But visit River Wildlife, Destination Kohler’s 800-acre wilderness preserve, and you will feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. You could easily be back in the late 1800s — when the first Mr. Kohler coated a cast-iron hog trough with enamel and marketed it as a bathtub — until you sit down to a contemporary farm-to-table birthday meal at the River Wildlife Lodge Restaurant. Out on the preserve’s 30 miles of trails teeming with birds and wildlife or drifting in a canoe down the seven miles of the Sheboygan River that wind through the property, cell phones seem like an anachronism.

There are reminders throughout Destination Kohler of the place’s rich history; the smoke stacks at the original factory, the ivy covered brick façades of the older buildings all add to the timelessness of the place. Today it’s hard to imagine that the elegant American Club was once a dormitory for the single, male factory workers and The Wisconsin Room, a fine-dining restaurant to rival any in Chicago, was once the mess hall where the men took their meals.

Cheese Tasting/Andréa R. Vaucher

Highlights of our stay included horseback riding for miles through a forest and along the river, yoga in a studio overlooking a lake on which we later paddle boarded and a cheese tasting (that included Hook’s memorable 12-year Cheddar) where each cheese was paired with a non-alcoholic cocktail.

Yoga on the Lake/Andréa R. Vaucher

It wasn’t easy getting me out of my room at The American Club, which is the epitome of chic and comfort with all its Kohler hydrotherapy doodads, including a bathtub looking out on a private garden and a shower with an oversized rainhead plus more jets and combos than I have ever seen. And it was just a quick walk from the hotel to the Kohler Waters Spa, where — in the spirit of Happy Birthday to Me! — I gladly gave myself over to their world-class therapists. The spa menu was extensive. Should I go for a seaweed wrap or a sea-salt exfoliation? A Vichy shower or a scalp treatment? I chose the Urban Renewal Facial, which left my skin glowing — so much for another birthday — and Alison chose the mood-lifting When Life Hands You Lemons massage.

So back to the history lesson.

Shortly after my visit to Kohler, immigration became the hot topic of the presidential campaign. Talk of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, calls for the deportation of the “dreamers” and a proposed Muslim ban had everyone on edge. The campaign’s mud-slinging and nasty rhetoric drowned out the voices of reason reminding us how immigration is instrumental in creating America’s success.

I found myself thinking about John Michael Kohler’s story and how proud the family still is of the immigrant workforce that helped launch their company and their brand. The signage throughout Destination Kohler, the exhibits in the design center and museum, all stress this fact. The Kohlers made sure their factory workers were not only housed and fed, but educated and had a path to citizenship. They encouraged their workers to stay here. They realized how diversity adds to the whole, how immigration is vital to the fabric of America.

If only this lesson were more far-reaching.

The author has no affiliation with Destination Kohler.

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