The American Club Beginnings
The immigrants, for whom The American Club was built in 1918, are gone now, absorbed into the communities surrounding Kohler Village. But they return frequently to The American Club, with their children and grandchildren – American citizens all – to touch the bricks, and marvel at the elegant oak paneling and woodwork, the handsome stained glass and brass furnishings.
They view with nostalgia what was once the old dining room, now The Wisconsin Room. This room, where the workers ate together, was a blend of sounds and aromas – the accents of Austria, Holland, Germany or Russia haltingly requesting “kartoffeln” or potatoes, while the women of the kitchen brought out platter after steaming platter of hearty food.
A reporter of the day marveled, “The tables fairly groan under the loads of wholesome food and the men can eat as much as they wish. There is only one rule in the dining room; that is to clean the plate. The manager wants nothing wasted. A victrola renders patriotic numbers and stirring marches during mealtime.”
Walter J. Kohler, himself the son of an immigrant, commissioned The American Club to be built to house the immigrant workers – “single men of modest means” who came to work at Kohler Co. Here the men, most of whom spoke very little English, could live in clean and comfortable surroundings while beginning life in their new country.
Walter Kohler had a further vision in mind. He wanted these men to learn English and become citizens … he wanted them to become “Americanized.”
The American Club – A Social Concept
“The name, American Club, was decided upon as it was thought that, with high standards of living and clean healthful recreation, it would be a factor in inculcating in men of foreign antecedents a love for their adopted country.” (WJK – June 23, 1918, Dedication of The American Club)
There were hundreds of people on the front lawn of The American Club when it was dedicated on a sunny Sunday on June 23, 1918. Workers who were living temporarily in Sheboygan and coming to work daily by streetcar, were among the crowds at the dedication. Many of these men were about to make The American Club their new home, where they would pay $27.50 a month for a single room, board and “plain washing.” And, they would have only to walk across the street to work.
It was a glorious day filled with intense emotion, patriotic songs and speeches. Walter Kohler concluded his speech: “If this Club, besides providing suitable living conditions, be also an influence on the Americanization of the foreign born and serve as a stimulus for a greater love of country and a desire for higher citizenship, then its purpose will have been achieved.”
The American flag was raised with great ceremony, after which the traditional patriotic cheers were given. “Three cheers for the boys of this country who are fighting overseas. Three cheers for the best flag that flew over the heads of any people.”
After the ceremonies, the celebration, and the cheering, it was back to the basic way of life for the immigrants who were now to live at The Club; Walter Kohler’s philosophy, that the immigrants should always be surrounded by reminders of America, was faithfully followed.
American flags were everywhere – in the small lobby, and in the Lincoln Room, which was the “lounging room” across from the main desk. A flag, too, was in the Washington Room – the quiet reading room upstairs. Here were pictures of the father of our country and his wife, Martha.
And always present, the two large American flags prominently draped on the dining room walls.
“Two immense American flags are draped in the room for the purpose of ever keeping before the men the fact that they are living in America and not a foreign country.”
Citizenship was Enthusiastically Encouraged
There was time after work for study and learning English so that the important “first papers” could be obtained. In addition to studying privately in their leisure hours at The Club, the immigrants had only to walk a block and a half to the new Kohler Public School. There, by arrangement with Kohler Co., “Evening School” was held two nights a week.
Over the years, each spring on the annual “Americanization Day,” men with first names like Fritz, Otto, Ferdinand and Gottlieb were taken to the County Court House on company time and received full wages the day they became American citizens. The men posed proudly in front of the Lincoln Room balcony and later, special banquets were given for the newly naturalized citizens.
In 1930, the Company newspaper reported that since 1919, 678 immigrants had taken out the important “first papers.”
The spirit of American patriotism was always at The American Club. In addition to the celebrations for new citizens, there were other occasional joyful outbursts. Walter Kohler brought John Phillip Sousa to Kohler Village for rousing performances in 1919 and 1925. Ravine Park, two blocks away from The American Club, was gaily decorated with flags and bunting. Sousa’s special train pulled up at Kohler Co.’s freight siding, while streetcars hurried back and forth from Sheboygan bringing people from all over the county.
Ultimately 10,000 people came to the 1919 concert. But the concert that never made the headlines was held on The American Club lawn at noon. John Phillip Sousa, in a magnificent gesture, came over to lead the Kohler band during one of its noontime concerts for employees.
Walter J. Kohler ran successfully for Governor of Wisconsin in 1928. The balcony of the Lincoln Room was the site of several campaign speeches. It was probably fitting that this son of an immigrant, whose formal education ended at grade eight, spoke from a building he dedicated to America and American ideals.
The Pride and Spirit of The American Club Lives On
In the decades that followed, the spirit that was The American Club prevailed. There were subtle changes – immigrants, now citizens, married and bought homes in the surrounding communities. One floor on the East wing of The Club was set aside as a “Teacherage” for single female teachers at the Kohler School.
In the early 1940s, the dining room was redecorated and renamed The Wisconsin Room in honor of the 30th state. The American flag was still prominently displayed, but several additions were made. Twenty-four drawings of distinguished Wisconsinites were placed on the walls. Two unique tapestries were commissioned and hung on either side of the entry stairs. One depicts the map of Wisconsin with tiny costumed figures representing the various ethnic groups and the areas of the state in which they settled. In a touch of whimsy, the artist also included Wisconsin’s mythical Paul Bunyan and Babe, his Blue Ox. The symbolic American eagle is shown at the top of the tapestry, as it is atop the other colorful tapestry.
Most school children in Wisconsin had been taught the story of Old Abe, the Wisconsin war eagle. Old Abe was the mascot of Eagle Regiment – 8th Wisconsin Infantry. He perched proudly on the mast of the regimental flag carried into thirty-nine battles and skirmishes in the Civil War. A handsome carved statue of Old Abe was placed on the east end of The Wisconsin Room.
On the west end of the large room, leaded windows were placed, the center window featuring a stained glass reproduction of the Kohler Co. medallion. The adjacent window has Walter Kohler’s favorite quotation from John Ruskin, “Life without labor is guilt, labor without art is brutality.”
In 1978, 60 years after it was dedicated, The American Club was placed on The National Register of Historic Places. It was at this point that Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., Chairman of the Board and President of Kohler Company, chose to continue the Kohler tradition of commitment to the historical past.
The American Club was closed for three years. From 1978 to 1981, the interiors of the building were carefully and lovingly restored and renovated. The basic premise of the renovation was to retain the historic American spirit of the original structure and to preserve its ethnic links to the immigrants who lived here, while at the same time, providing the finest modern accommodations.
The American Club Rededicated
In 1981, The American Club opened as an elegant hotel of uncommon luxury. But the link to the past was kept. A stroll through the hotel gives the visitor an intimate glimpse and flavor of the spirit of the original American Club.
The oak-paneled hallways throughout the building are hung with charming pictures of more simple, bygone days. Men in high starched collars and women in long white dresses pose stiffly at a July picnic in nearby Ravine Park – three winsome ladies recline in a hammock on the edge of a local lake. An engaging enlargement of “Our Snow Plow” shows a 12-horse hitch pulling a massive blade fabricated in the Kohler factory, an example of typical American resourcefulness.
A walk down the Library hall reveals portraits of distinguished Wisconsinites from John Muir to Billy Mitchell, which originally hung in The Wisconsin Room.
Each guest room in the hotel honors a famous American with a portrait and various papers of memorabilia framed on the wall. Those Americans honored run the historical gamut from Mary Pickford to Ernest Hemingway, John James Audubon to Lou Gehrig. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are still honored in the rooms that were named for them.
The origins of the vigorous and hard-working immigrants who lived here are still remembered. What was once The American Club laundry room, where the men’s “plain washing” was done, is now The Immigrant Restaurant & Winery Bar.
In a series of six authentically decorated dining rooms, the energetic ethnic groups who settled and prospered here are represented. The cozy Dutch Room displays delft tiles and terra cotta as used in 18th century Holland. The French Room exhibits the warmth of antique walnut.
At the opposite end of the building from The Immigrant Restaurant is the informal atmosphere of The Horse & Plow in what was once the bowling alley. Antique farm tools, used by the area’s early settlers, and hundreds of old photographs are displayed in this dining room.
The past is always present, and provides a security, warmth and interest much like that given to the immigrants who first enjoyed The American Club.
To view the exterior of The American Club is to realize that the building remains unchanged. The 100-foot flagpole and American flag are just where they were in 1918. The gabled blue slate roof has the rich patina of graceful aging.
The immigrants are gone now. What endures are reminders of the American dream, that an immigrant could better himself by becoming an American citizen.
Today, The American Club continues to honor the ideals, philosophy, promise and pride on which The American Club was founded.