The American Club turns 100: from immigrant housing to luxury lodging

KOHLER COMPANY PHOTO

A better life: That is what Old World immigrants sought when leaving European homelands and taking a treacherous ocean voyage 100 years ago. They arrived in America with big dreams but certainly no guarantees.

History books and museums explain what happened next, but close to home is a powerful rags-to-riches illustration that is especially pertinent this year.

The American Club in Kohler opened in 1918 as housing for nearly 150 immigrant factory workers, right across from Kohler Company. Now the building is a historic hotel that has earned a five-diamond AAA rating every year since 1985. The spa ranks among the best in the world; lots of therapeutic services involve water and modern, Kohler-made fixtures.

Kohler golf courses are among the finest too. That includes Whistling Straits, 10 miles north, which hosts the 2020 Ryder Cup, team play for the best golfers in Europe and the U.S. That builds upon a 20-year reputation, back to when Golf Digest magazine declared Sheboygan County was one of the best places to play golf in the world.

Such praise made my eyes widen back then because the part of Sheboygan County where I grew up was all about frugal and hard-working farmers. They didn’t golf because they were planting, haying, combining, picking corn and milking cows. Our idea of splurging was a double brat on a hard roll during a summer Firemen’s Picnic, not dinner at The American Club’s Immigrant Room.

I think a big reason why Kohler quality – in plumbing products and hospitality – stays steady is because of the work ethic and dedication that Sheboygan County’s salt-of-the-earth workers pass on to younger generations.

And I doubt that many people, before the turn of this century, pictured Kohler with an international reputation for golf. But this wasn’t the first time the Kohler family proved naysayers wrong.

When Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler decided long ago to build a plumbing fixture factory on 21 acres of farmland, four miles from the nearest city, the local newspaper called it “Kohler’s Folly.” That’s where the family’s New World dream began and persisted, despite challenges.

The factory was rebuilt before it opened, having burned during construction. The founder and two sons died around then too, leaving a third son – Walter Kohler – to persevere.

What he chose to provide to workers from Germany and beyond was a place to live as well as work, and a way of life that would lead to U.S. citizenship. Both the brick factory and Tudor-style American Club were part of a 50-year plan for a tidy company town.

Workers paid $27.50 per month for room and board at the dormitory-style American Club, simple but clean lodging with a cafeteria, bowling alley, tap room and barbershop.

“The Club was never intended to earn a profit,” explained a 1920 booklet about Kohler. “It was intended to furnish the men with a place where they can be comfortable, healthy and happy. No man can do his work well if he has not a good place to live, good food to eat, clean surroundings and a chance to enjoy life.”

Trees and gardens were plentiful then and now. Retail, industrial and residential areas still look like they belong together architecturally.

But as automobiles became more common, the four-mile work commute to Kohler no longer seemed cumbersome. Single men married and started families in homes of their own.

Worker housing no longer was needed, so Herbert Kohler Jr. – grandson of the factory founder – decided in 1978 to turn The American Club into luxury lodging. Eyes widened again.

Each of 241 guest rooms at the hotel is devoted to a famous person, so no two are the same. What stays the same? The setting, looks and attitude.

Kohler’s year-round population is merely 2,120, and a second 50-year plan (by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) stays true to what was proposed a century ago. Yet growth is allowed in new ways.

Newly completed for this centennial year:

A new emphasis on wellness with the expansion of yoga studios that face water at The Shops at Woodlake, the opening of Bold Cycle, a cycling studio with 35 indoor bikes, outdoor excursions and post-workout cocktail area; and Swing Studio, indoor pro instruction and simulators to duplicate play at 60-plus golf courses.

Expansion of Kohler Waters Spa (more treatment rooms, more seating at the spa’s relaxation pool and a new bridal suite).

Opening of multi-bedroom suites, for groups traveling together, at Inn on Woodlake.

Headlining Aug. 5 events to celebrate The American Club centennial in Kohler is a free concert by Grammy-winning gospel artist Amy Grant at 7 p.m. at Kohler Village Bowl.

A parade, ice cream social and fireworks also are in the works.

Opening at The American Club library is a new exhibit and artifacts about the building’s history. To be introduced at The Immigrant restaurant is a seven-course tasting menu that is a tribute to long-ago Danish, Dutch, English, French, German and Normandy settlers in Wisconsin.

A new outdoor sculpture of a boy with an American flag is called “The Immigrant” and was created with cast iron by Stephen Paul Day of New Orleans, an artist-in-residence at Kohler Company.

Posters at The American Club take visitors on a self-guided tour of the property. That is in addition to guided hotel history tours at 2 p.m. daily.

Learn more about the area’s history at a free, lower-level museum at Kohler Design Center, devoted to all things Kohler. That includes cast-iron plows and old-time bathtubs to foundry-made art and explanatory videos about hospitality development. Retired factory workers lead free, three-hour, weekday tours of Kohler Company. americanclubresport.com