Kohler is an instantly recognizable name to residents of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. But the family-owned company, founded in 1873, is also known throughout the state and far beyond for its innovative bath and kitchen fixtures. Manufacturing facilities dot 50 locations on six continents and employ more than 30,000 people. More than that, without Walter Kohler Sr., there might not be a Memorial Union on the UW–Madison campus.
Walter Kohler was one of the family’s most successful businessmen. Born in Sheboygan, he left school in eighth grade to join the company. At age 30 in 1905, he began a 32-year tenure as its president.
Both the man and the company quickly gained a reputation for unveiling new ideas — from the first iteration of a motorized dishwasher to a pottery plant that could mass-produce sinks and toilets. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured the company’s products in a 1929 exhibition, noting “the artistic qualities of the bath.”
Kohler led his family’s company during three-plus decades of innovation and resilience.
Active in civic affairs and politics, Kohler served as governor of Wisconsin from 1929 to 1931. The first state candidate to make campaign stops by airplane, he lost re-election when voters wanted a change during the Great Depression years.
Kohler was also a supporter of higher education and served as a UW regent during the 1920s. While a regent, Kohler created his legacy on campus when he chaired a fundraising committee for Memorial Union. Its cornerstone, laid in 1927, contained the names of those who had served in World War I and the building campaign’s more than 10,000 donors. Today, the union and its Terrace along the shores of Lake Mendota remain a must-see campus destination.
Thank you, Sheboygan County, for Walter Kohler Sr. — and for putting Wisconsin-made products on the map.