Wisconsin in labor: work museums, tours

A lot of us in Wisconsin are seeing red or feeling blue because of this winter’s legislation and citizen protests about collective bargaining rights for state workers.

To understand the deepest hues of work, head to Milwaukee, where hundreds of paintings and sculptures show the sweat, hazards and triumphs of manual labor. The Grohmann Museum exists because of its 850-piece “Man at Work” collection, which portrays work as art and is among the largest compilations of its kind in the world. Pieces are as old as 430 years, and most work settings are European.

The artistry exudes pride and risk, inhumane conditions and a sense of responsibility. The result is a history of work that examines how children, women and heads of households have toiled in pursuit of self-worth and freedom, if not prosperity.

Moody brushstrokes and interplay of colors capture the heat of a foundry furnace, the strength of ox-drawn plows, the tediousness of washing clothes by hand. “At issue is the type of work we value,” suggests John Kopmeier Jr., museum director. “Who aspires to farm, to work on an assembly line, to learn as a years-long apprentice?”

The museum, a part of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, is named after Eckhart Grohmann, a German emigrant, foundry developer and entrepreneur. He also is an MSOE regent who donated his personal art collection and the money to build the three-story museum, which opened in 2007.

Early artwork reminds us that safety was the concern of the worker, not the employer. Contemporary scenes include orderly rhythms at Wisconsin’s Kohler Company, depicted in oils by Hans Dieter Tylle of Germany, the son of a pattern maker who produced machinery parts.

The artist specializes in industrial scenes. His first paintings were of his father’s workplace, and Milwaukee contributions don’t end with the Kohler factory scenes. “We call him our resident artist,” the museum director says, because Hans also painted the atrium’s ceiling mural and designed a floor mosaic, plus eight stained glass windows in Grohmann’s rooftop office.

Also on the roof: a garden with nine bronze sculptures, averaging 1,100 pounds each, of workers with the equipment of their trade. Each is a replica of the six- to 30-inch-tall originals that stand in or near the office.

Inside, the array of art is organized by work themes. On the first floor: iron mining and steelworks. Above that are construction and agricultural scenes, then topped by work in crafts and trades.

The Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway St., Milwaukee, is open daily. Admission is $5 ($3 for students/seniors, free for ages under 12 years). Guided tours possible, by appointment. www.msoe.edu, 414-277-2300.

Up until April 3 is “Lake Boats: The Photography of Jim Brozek and Christopher Winters,” photographers whose exhibit shows the working people and vessels of Lake Michigan.

Opening April 15 is “Milwaukee Mills: A Visual History,” artwork about the iron industry during the turn of the 20th century. Mayville also figures prominently. The show ends Aug. 21.

“Heavy Metal” is the title of the next installment of Jeffrey Hollander’s piano concert series, at 5:30 p.m. May 10 at the museum.

Other places to learn about the ongoing labors of Wisconsin:

Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee – The birthplace of Harley motorcycle production is a point of pilgrimage for Harley owners, especially since 2008, when the big and bold museum opened. Stroll the museum’s 20-acre riverfront campus, where revamped industrial buildings house hundreds of Harley models (including the oldest, 1903 Serial Number One) and artsy, hands-on exhibits show what makes the bikes roar. Bring the kids; scavenger hunts and quizzes include prizes. All ages hop onto vintage Harleys and pretend to rev through America, as scenery rolls on a 20×60-foot video screen.

Ages 12 and older can add a tour of the Menomonee Falls powertrain facility; Harley provides a museum-factory shuttle, steel toe shoes and safety goggles. Reservations required. www.h-dmuseum.com, 877-436-8738

Hungry? Order burgers or ribs at the museum’s Motor restaurant. Or, make a reservation to tour production at Palermo’s Pizza, 3301 W. Canal St., then savor a slice. www.palermospizza.com, 414-455-0383

Sleepy? Check into the rugged but elegant Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St., within a walk of the museum. Edgy, industrial design caters to dusty bike riders in leathers and suit-wearing business execs in heels. www.theironhorsehotel.com, 414-374-4766

Kohler Company, 444 Highland Dr., Kohler – The plumbing fixture magnate’s retired employees lead free, three-hour “Industry in Action” factory tours on weekday mornings. See red-hot bathtubs, fresh from their molds. Venture into pottery, brass and cast iron production, to watch the molding, coating and decorating of sinks, toilets and more. Wear closed-toed shoes; Kohler provides goggles.

Reservations are required for these tours, introduced in the 1920s. www.us.kohler.com (search “factory tour”), 920-457-3699

Want more? Tours leave from the Kohler Design Center, 101 Upper Rd., whose “Great Wall of China” and other displays show off high-fashion bathroom and kitchen fixtures. In the basement are free exhibits about company history, projects and expansions, including Kohler’s PGA championship golf courses.

Ask for a walking tour map or audio headset to see dozens of outdoor sculptures made of industrial materials. They were created through the “Arts in Industry” program, where artists-in-residence and factory employees share work space and equipment.

For a total immersion, book a room at The American Club, the AAA five-diamond hotel that began as the factory’s lodging for immigrant workers. www.americanclub.com, 800-344-2838


Lambeau Field, 1265 Lombardi Ave., Green Bay – Wisconsinites may disagree about politics, but this Palace of the People unites them. The nation’s only community-owned and nonprofit team in the National Football League is home to the Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XLV champs.

So tour the stadium, linger at the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame and tip a cold one at adjacent Kroll’s West, 1990 S. Ridge Rd., while examining the wall of celebrity autographs.

www.lambeaufield.com, 920-569-7500; www.krollswest.com, 920-497-1111

Add a meal at Chives, 1749 Riverside Dr., Suamico, because owner J.R. Schoenfeld was the football team’s executive chef for six years. Today he grills Angus steaks and bakes artisan bread; proceeds from the latter (his Seven Loaves Project) teach people in Rwanda how to make a self-sufficient living. www.chivesdining.net, 920-434-6441

Stay at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, 333 W. College Ave., Appleton, where décor at the Lombardi Steakhouse is devoted to the legendary Packer coach and his work ethic. Expect more than 400 Lombardi artifacts, game plays to coaching trophies. www.vincelombardisteakhouse.com, 920-380-9390

Trek Bicycle Corp., 801 W. Madison St., Waterloo – The creator of road bikes that helped Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France seven times also is the country’s biggest bicycle manufacturer. Work that began in a barn in 1976 now encompasses two locations in Wisconsin.

Free, one-hour tours are offered at 10 a.m. Wednesdays for ages 4 and older. Closed-toe shoes must be worn. www.trekbikes.com, 920-478-4678

Add a visit to Madison’s dynamic State Capitol, 30 miles west, for a free tour of the home of state government at 2 E. Main St. or – on Saturdays from mid April to early November – fill your arms with food, plants and other products made by the people whose Dane County Farmers’ Market booths tightly encircle the headquarters of state government. No other U.S. city has a larger farmers’ market that is entirely operated by people who sell only what they produce. www.wisconsin.gov (click “visiting”), 608-266-0382; www.dcfm.org, 608-455-1999

Hear a rumble? Maybe that’s just your stomach growling. Check out Ian’s Pizza, 115 State St., whose pie choices include mac and cheese, lasagne, shepherd’s pie – and traditional pizza combos. The pizza maker caters to the college crowd but gained international attention when it began delivering free pizza to State Capitol protesters. By March 1, people in all 50 states and at least 50 countries had called Ian’s to buy pizza for the activists.

www.ianspizza.com, 608-257-9248

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.