2014 Trip Five, July 23-24, Summer in the Cities

Thursday July 24, Appleton WI

We decided today we need a bigger home and more money. After a 3.5 hour tour of the Kohler factory and another hour touring the Kohler Design Center, our home is decidedly mundane.

Kohler WI is the home to the Kohler company, a privately held firm, primarily the Kohler family, that manufactures bathroom and kitchen plumbing fixtures, along with small engines, power generators, etc. Kohler is close to Sheboygan WI, along the west side of Lake Michigan and about a 90 minute drive from Appleton.

A sample bathroom layout at Kohler Design Center

A sample bathroom layout at Kohler Design Center

(I should note here that I will try to present, albeit briefly, the two sides of certain portions of the Kohler history relating to unionization. It is not a major portion of this post. Sources of information conflict as befits a major, long-lasting strike. My information about unionization should not be taken as gospel truth; if concerned about more details the reader is encouraged to explore on their own. The Wikipedia entry for the company is so bland and brief it makes you wonder if an effort is being made to condense entries.)

Our tour guide was a retired 39 year veteran of the Kohler company. His message was that quality is the Kohler watchword and explained the many details that keep the Kohler product at the head of its class. We viewed the production of both cast iron and vitreous china fixtures (that begin with clay from southeastern U.S.) Due to the properties of clay and vitreous china, much of the manufacturing work is still done by hand, although robotic manufacturing equipment is coming into greater use. (No pictures are allowed in the plant.)

The tour covers acres of grounds and numerous buildings. Our guide has seen many changes over the years, including a strong focus on re-use of waste products. Of course, an outsider never knows if these changes are driven by smart management, government regulations, or cost efficiencies.

The factory buildings were initially built about 100 years ago when the company moved out of Sheboygan into Kohler, then undeveloped farmland. An initial mish-mash of development led to the creation of a planned community with separate residential, retail, and manufacturing areas. According to the company, homes were not segregated by economics, unlike some other communities. Company policy forbade top management from running for local government positions so it would not become a company owned town. (This did not prevent two Kohlers from serving as Governors of Wisconsin.) Today, that effort has resulted in a very attractive town that is also a tourist and golfer destination location.

The company founder was born in Austria and came to the US as a child, with the family originally settling in St. Paul Minnesota. He moved to Chicago, became a traveling salesman, and married the daughter of a local industrialist in Sheboygan Wisconsin. He took over the father-in-laws iron foundry. One of the products sold was a big dunking tank for cleaning pigs before slaughter. As the story goes, a local farmer used it, after cleaning it, to take a bath after his work outside. He approached the company, mentioned the idea, and they modified it to add legs to the tub and shorten the size and sold it as a bathtub. The first one was sold for one cow and 14 chickens. Thus began the Kohler Company foray into the plumbing business.

The company had its share of sadness and difficulties. The founder’s first wife died so he married the plant owner’s second daughter. The founder died relatively young and two of the sons involved in plant management died early. One of the early plants burnt to the ground. The son of the second wife was the one who primarily oversaw the growth of the company.

The tour does not take us to the area that makes engines and power generation units but the foundry portion where brass fittings, etc are made was pretty interesting. During the tour, the guide mentioned that the plant was a union shop as we passed by a UAW logo on one wall. After the tour we had lunch at the Horse and Plough, a casual restaurant that is part of te American Club, the resort hotel complex with several restaurants but only the Horse and Plough is open for lunch.

After lunch we went over to the design center, a showpiece of Kohler products, primarily bathroom and kitchen ones are on display. Having lived near Hershey Pennsylvania, I knew that sometimes a planned community can have his own difficulties. I asked one of the staff at the design center visitors area if the unionization process had been difficult. At Hershey, the founder was shocked, bitter and angry that the workers wanted a union. There had been a nasty strike which left bitterness among the employees. The Kohler rep indicated that there had been a strike or two, that they were settled, and everybody has strikes. The lower level of the design center is a museum with the Kohler history. There was no mention there about unions.

It was only later as I talked with people that I realized that there were two divisive strikes. The one in 1934 left two people dead and the National Guard had to be called in. The result of that effort was a “company union” remained in place until the second bitter strike in 1954. In the ’54 strike, workers were out for two months and strike breakers wer hired and worked for six years until a settlement was reached. Evidently local farmers and other people were hired who did not know the craft of making bathroom fixtures. Quality went down and other unions frequently would not install Kohler products in sympathy for Kohler strikers. Quite a difference from what the staff member mentioned.

One of the sample bathrooms at Kohler Design Center

One of the sample bathrooms at Kohler Design Center

The design center had two levels of Kohler products and numerous displays of sample bathroom and kitchens with Kohler products. The sample bathrooms are gorgeous and creative in the various layouts. There were some that were definitely not our style but if we had a larger bathroom and more money, there were several designs that I would not mind luxuriating in.

The lower level, in addition to the museum, had two display areas that focused on the Kohler Residency in Arts program. Artists have the opportunity to spend two to six months creating works of art in the pottery, iron and brass, and enamel areas of the plant. They can take their creations with them except for leaving two pieces at the Kohler Arts Center and/or the Design Center. Usually four artists are in residence at a time. They receive free housing and an honorarium for expenses along with free use of the shops and materials in the plant. We saw several of the artists at work during our tour. It seems like a great program.

As a private company, we have no idea how the company is doing financially. However, usually there is only one shift working and we did see several areas of the plant that were empty. The American penchant for lowest cost may be taking its toll on a company that focuses more on quality at a moderate cost. Kohler is a multi-national company with subsidiaries around the world though.

Our drive to and from Kohler combined both interstate and two-lane highways. We have been seeing lots of the Wisconsin countryside. Wednesday we came across what seemed to be a local controversy. In an area with a few wind turbines we observed several home-made signs by the side of the road basically indicating that good neighbors would not sell out to the wind power industry.

Stevens Point Sculpture Park

Stevens Point Sculpture Park

Wednesday was our travel day from Stevens Point to Appleton. We started with a walk through the Stevens Point Sculpture Park. Luckily we finished the tour before two bus loads of children arrived. I do not know the length of the trail but it has about 30 works of art. It must be frequently used by school groups. We came across a dozen or more groupings of drawings by school children who had visited recently and put up their art work next to the sculptures.

Driving through Wisconsin

Driving through Wisconsin

Instead of taking a direct route from Stevens Point to Appleton, we detoured an extra 80 miles or so to go past Green Bay to Champion WI, home of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The people at the Rudolph Grotto had mentioned this and since we had time, we thought we would give it a shot. The site preserves the spot where Mary appeared to a young Belgian immigrant woman named Adele Brise in 1954. Adele dedicated the next 35 years of her life to Mary’s message: Teach the Catholic Faith to the children of a people who were losing their faith through neglect. (As a growing immigrant area, there were too few priests and nuns in the area to serve them.)

Our Lady of Good Help Shrine

Our Lady of Good Help Shrine

The church here was built in 1942 with the altar over the site of the Marian apparition. A Church investigation in 2010 lead to official Church approval of the apparitions that occurred here. It is one of only 11 approvals given in the last 300 years. One of the stories about the shrine relates to the Great Peshtigo Fire. You are probably, unless from WI, saying “what great fire?”

Well, the Peshtigo Fire took place on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1971. The Chicago fire killed around 300 people; the Peshtigo fire between 1500 and 2500. An area twice the size of Rhode Island on both sides of Green Bay (the bay, not the city) was burnt. Sister Adele and other locals gathered at the chapel and prayed. While the fire consumed the area around the chapel, it and its occupants were spared.

Mary, Ed and Chuck

Mary, Ed and Chuck

We arrived in Appleton after touring the countryside. Dinner that evening was at the home of Mary, my cousin, and Chuck, her husband, on the northern shores of Lake Winnebago. My other cousin Judy from Appleton was there also. We had a pleasant evening discussing travel and our families.

Mary and her two Airedales

Mary and her two Airedales

Dinner Thursday night was at Judy’s house in Appleton where we met Phil, a friend of Judy’s. Judy and Phil met on a trip to Poland and have been good friends ever since. We got to regale Phil with old stories he had not heard before and he proved a receptive listener. We picked up some travel tips in exchange as Judy and Phil have traveled extensively abroad.

Ed and Chris July 25 11 AM

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