Just outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the Kohler factory is surrounded by its company town of the same name: a movie set of charming brick homes and perfectly manicured lawns. Most come to Kohler for its ritzy resort, deluxe spa, and PGA Championship–worthy golf course—but where else can you watch a robotic arm pull a glowing-orange bathtub out of a furnace, from a vantage point close enough to absorb its blast of radiant heat?
Back in 1883, a Wisconsin farm-implement maker named John Michael Kohler got into the plumbing-fixture business when he applied enamel to a cast-iron trough, added four legs, and created a bathtub. (According to legend, he traded the tub to a farmer for a cow and 14 chickens.) A century later, Kohler, Co., has become one of the largest plumbing-fixture manufacturers—and oldest family-owned companies—in the country.
During a three-hour tour of the Kohler factory, visitors wearing closed-toe shoes and safety glasses get close enough to the action to earn “excuse-me” beeps from passing forklift drivers. Along with lines of vitreous china sinks, brass faucets, and other fixtures, Kohler still produces enameled cast-iron bathtubs, which hang like sides of beef on conveyor racks.
Photo courtesy of Kohler
Over the years, the facilities have become more and more automated (one octogenarian tour guide, a retired Kohler factory worker, points out a robotic tool nicknamed in his honor that replaced a step he used to do by hand). Still, some processes are as raw, manual—and viable—as they were a century ago. In the warm, humid pottery, shirtless workers in grubby jeans remove ceramic urinals from their molds. In the foundry, workers pour molten iron into molds—it looks like liquid lightning. You won’t take a soak in the tub for granted after experiencing a sight like that.
Tours are offered weekday mornings at 8:30 a.m. Closed-toe shoes and advanced reservations are required, 920-457-369
Photo courtesy of Kohler
Where to Stay
The former factory workers’ dormitories are now the luxurious American Club, appointed in dark wood, traditional décor, and, of course, Kohler fixtures (though not all rooms include tubs). If you stay at the Club’s adjacent Carriage House, above the spa, a massage is only a short (robe-clad) walk from your room.
Where to Eat
The resort’s dining options include: the elegant Immigrant Room (jacket required), the more relaxed Wisconsin Room, and, for those still in their factory-tour wear, the Kohler workers’ one-time tavern, The Horse & Plow, which serves great burgers and beer-cheese soup.
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