With just a few states left in our quest to discover the essence of each one, we headed for Wisconsin, knowing little more about it than its reputation as America’s Dairyland.
We discovered the cream of the crop in Kohler, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive north from Chicago and an hour from Milwaukee. Kohler is in Sheboygan County, home to companies like Sargento, the first to offer prepackaged cheese, and Johnsonville, one of America’s largest sausage producers. With much of the early European immigration coming from Germany, it is little wonder that Bratwurst Days, Oktoberfest, and breweries add to the region’s fun. Deep fried cheese curds that ooze melted cheddar are indeed popular — and addictive — treats. But there’s so much more.
Little did we know that in the Village of Kohler, established around a foundry for making farm implements, we would find a world-class five star resort experience. The complex has evolved with championship golf courses, including Whistling Straits, with massive sand dunes and roaming sheep that replicate the rugged courses in Ireland or Scotland.
It attracted the PGA Championship again in 2015, the third time it has been held here. The American Club’s other course, Blackwolf Run, utilizes the natural Wisconsin terrain and is regarded as one of course designer Pete Dye’s crowning achievements.
Kohler became a household name after John Michael Kohler bought out his father-in-law’s Sheboygan foundry and machine shop that manufactured cast iron farm implements. In 1883, he added four legs to their enameled cast iron feeding trough and sold it to a farmer as a bathtub in exchange for fourteen pigs and a cow. By 1891 Kohler was producing bathtubs, washbowls, and drinking fountains. Kohler Co. went on to be the first company to offer a complete solution for kitchens and baths – sinks, toilets, faucets, and tubs.
In 1900 the factory was moved a few miles west to Riverside, and after John Michael Kohler’s death in 1927 Riverside was renamed the Village of Kohler. His son, Walter, saw that the expanding company needed a place for immigrant workers to live and built the elegant red brick Tudor-style American Club in 1918 with dormitories, a dining area, billiards, bowling, barbershop, tavern and school for learning English and gaining citizenship. It was sited opposite the factory, separated by a broad, tree-lined boulevard. Walter Kohler, Sr. went on to create a zoned, planned community with plenty of green space in keeping with Sir Ebenezer Howard’s English garden city movement. Later, such notables as Boston’s Olmsted Brothers and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation added to the master plan.
After the need for immigrant labor waned the American Club was transformed into a one-stop vacation destination that exemplifies gracious living. It opened in 1981 with the finest of accommodations, dining and spa experiences as well as year-round outdoor adventures.
The American Club is a AAA 5-diamond and Forbes 5-star ranked hotel, one of only 48 hotels in the world with both designations. It was added to the National Historic Register in the 1980s.
Guest rooms are uniquely decorated and their bathrooms include The Kohler Showering Experience as well as a range of Kohler bath features.
Those who wish to bring the experience home can visit the Design Center.
The luxurious Kohler Waters Spa is on the first floor of the adjacent Carriage House.
Since breakfast, afternoon tea, and hors d’oeuvres are served there, guests who stay in one of the 186 adults-only guest rooms can be attired in their plush robes all day.
The spa is the ultimate place to experience the therapeutic benefits of Kohler’s water-inspired treatments and is one of 48 spas worldwide to be awarded five stars by Forbes Travel.
There are a dozen or so dining options at Destination Kohler, from the homemade ice cream, snacks, and coffee and tea in the greenhouse, shipped piece-by-piece from England, to the elegant European-influenced American cuisine of the romantic and AAA Four-Diamond Immigrant Restaurant & Winery, which has a specialty tea menu that reads like a fine wine list. The Winery Bar has nearly five hundred wine options and received Wine Spectator’s Best Award of Excellence.
The Immigrant Restaurant’s Tasting Menu is an experience in fine dining that could began with rare Russian Imperial Osetra Caviar, formerly available exclusively to the Russian czars. The American Club’s 5-star dine-around features five courses, each paired with wine and served in a different Kohler restaurant.
The more casually elegant Wisconsin Room, the original dining hall of immigrant workers, serves farm-to-table breakfast and dinners. It is renowned for its bountiful Friday Night Seafood Buffet and Sunday Brunch.
The workers’ former pub is now the casual Horse & Plow. It is a place to relax with a brew or an Arnold Palmer, half lemonade and half iced tea, munch some fried cheese curds and pretzels or a sandwich like the H&P Reuben or the American Club. Tabletops are made of wood from the immigrants’ bowling alley.
Those seeking a light meal with a sweet treat should head for Craverie Chocolatier Café, where its handmade original recipe chocolate can be paired with beer or wine and enjoyed while watching the sun set over Wood Lake. Product development is a key part of Chocolatier Anette Righi DeFendi’s work, like fulfilling Mr. Kohler’s desire for a chocolate peanut butter creation to surpass Reese’s flavor and for the world’s best chocolate turtle, the Terrapin, now the shop’s signature chocolate.
Kohler Co., now a global company that employs over 30,000 employees in fifteen countries, continues to be privately held and is in the fourth generation of family management. The company also owns Baker Furniture, examples of which are found throughout The American Club.