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Installation of Jose Bedia's Mbua-Ndoki (Sorcerer Dog) at Kohler Center for the Arts

NOT JUST BEER AND BRATS:
Sheboygan and Kohler, Wisconsin

getaway-chicago logoThe Getaway Guys recall Sheboygan as being synonymous with a culinary experience not unto their liking, but during their recent adventure they didn’t 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 had been to Kohler, toured the Kohler Design Center and stayed at the American Club. Neil had been to the Kohler Arts Center before and Alan didn’t remember being in Sheboygan ever.sheboygan1

Both Sheboygan and Kohler share a common heritage and benefit from the largess of a dynastic empire built on toilets and sinks. Not unlike other communities situated on the west side of Lake Michigan, Sheboygan owes its existence to geography and its access to waterborne transport. Settled in the 1830’s by New England lumbermen and trappers, by mid-century cheese was a prominent industry due to the arrival of immigrant German, Dutch and Irish cheese makers. By 1875 Sheboygan had a population of about 7,000 and by 1890 a population of 16,300, which helped to foster the growth of manufacture not solely dependent on animal husbandry.sheboygan2 In 1873, John Michael Kohler arrived in Sheboygan and the rest is history (coincidentally, Kohler was descendant from Austrian cheese makers).

A Chicago-based furniture salesman, Kohler met and married Lillie Vollrath of Sheboygan whose father was an iron founder, a business into which Kohler would immerse himself with entrepreneurial skill and eventual success as a manufacturer of tubs, sinks and toilets. Challenging the trade leaders, Crane and Standard, by 1900 Kohler was in a position to move his operation four miles west to Riverside (now Kohler, Wisconsin). Unexpectedly he died in November of the same year and four months later (February 1901) the new facility was gutted by fire, which was the beginning of the Company’s difficulties. sheboygan3In quick succession, principle share holders bailed out, two key family members died and the Company was straddled with debt when Walter Kohler became president in 1905 at age 30 and led the Company until 1940. Walter Kohler was unique as a person and industrialist. Absent a formal education beyond the eighth grade he was a self-taught man of skill, 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 thesheboygan4 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 formally a dormitory for unmarried male workers and 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 avoids).sheboygan5 By any name, Outsider Art is a quirky endeavor by self-taught artists motivated to express their inner most thoughts through cross discipline means often of their own invention. Commonly using unconventional materials and techniques alien in formal art training, “Outsiders” (also called folk artists) past and present produce works of intuitive and penetrating perception which is hard to decipher, but surprisingly communicative. A kind of artwork those with formal training can’t duplicate or imitate. Alan was mesmerized and Neil could only sheboygan6think 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. Sociologically, from the introduction of modest indoor plumbing in the early 20th century to sybaritic bathing and meal preparation pleasures 100 years later it is thought-provoking and fun to see. The “glamorous” showroom aspects of the design center are (in all modesty) mind boggling. From noiseless toilets consuming practically no water, to sinks of exquisite design dispensing water magically and showers that bring to mind 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 in profusion.

For lunch, the Guys ate at Jumes, a downtown joint with brats but no beer, where the food was ample and inexpensive. If staying at the American Club in Kohler, a variety of dining options are available through the Club. The best and most unique (in Neil’s opinion) is River Wildlife, a private and intimate facility serving excellent fare in rustic ambiance. February 2010

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