February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
John Kohler

John Michael Kohler was doing a brisk business selling products from his foundry in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to immigrants passing through the city on their way west. He sold enameled tea kettles and flat-rimmed kitchen sinks. He also made an enameled iron vessel that farmers used as a combination hog scalder and watering trough.

Sensing an emerging market for household products, Kohler designed and cast four ornamental iron feet. He welded them to his hog scalder and, in 1883, put the first Kohler bathtub on the market. That first bathtub, so the legend goes, sold to a local farmer in exchange for one cow and 14 chickens.

The Kohlers were cheesemakers and dairy farmers in the ancestral home in the Austrian Alps when the family came to America in mid-century. The Kohlers settled in rural St. Paul, Minnesota, where there is still a Kohler dairy selling Kohler milk. John, however, left the family farm to peddle goods in Chicago.

On a sales trip along Lake Michigan Kohler met a young woman named Lillie Vollrath in Sheboygan. By 1873 the 29-year old Kohler was married and buying out his father-in-law’s interest in a small foundry and machine shop. Kohler directed twenty-one employees in the manufacture of plows, road scrapers, hitching posts, cemetery crosses, garden settees and any ironwork a customer might need.

In 1880 the factory burned to the ground. Kohler rebuilt the plant, added an enamel shop and started shifting production from plowshares to plumbing fixtures. As sales increased he was able to indulge in civic interests. Kohler became part owner of the Turner Hall and the Sheboygan Opera House, two of the major cultural centers in the community. Kohler even put in one term as mayor of Sheboygan.

In 1899 Kohler moved his foundry from Sheboygan to a small village called Riverside four miles west of the city. Many hailed the move as “Kohler’s Folly.” They found if difficult to understand why a prospering foundry would locate away from its skilled work force, away from utilities and away from city services and convenient transportation.

John Kohler would not live to see his the full scope of his vision realized. He died before his new plant was in full production. Three months later fire destroyed the factory and the company was forced to move back to Sheboygan.

Kohler’s sons returned the business to Riverside to re-establish the family factory, devoted now solely to plumbing products. A small cluster of employees’ homes grew up around the Kohler factory. In 1912, by popular vote of its residents, the village of Riverside was incorporated and its name was changed to Kohler.

John Michael Kohler had always dreamed of building a model city. It was a dream he passed on to his family, and they would not let it die.

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