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The bold look of Kohler - an emigrants saga

US Americans sit on it, or wash their hands in it. The sanitary ware from the Kohler company.

After my first contract with Royal Viking Line, I flew out from San Francisco, USA. Correct, I sat on a toilet bowl from Kohler at the airport. I noticed the name, as it is very common in our valley.


Representative for all emigrants from the Bregenzerwald valley, Austria, I have put together this blog. I wanted to investigate why these people left home at that time, took on endless hardships and how they fared in the new world.

The Bregenzerwald valley at the extreme Western tip of Austria pretty much unfolds from out state capitol Bregenz at the Lake Constanze all the way to the famous skiing area of the Arlberg region with its famous villages of Lech, Zürs and St. Anton. Within an half hour car ride we are at the borders of Liechtenstein, Germany and Switzerland.

At the marker the village of Schnepfau is located. Its about 20 minutes by car away from my home village Egg.


The family of Johann Michael Kohler.

Johann Michael Kohler was born in Schnepfau/Hirschau in 1805.

Johann Michael Kohler came from a poor family. In the first half of the

19th century many peasant boys went to Switzerland to learn the emerging fat cheese making. Before that, only lean and sour cheeses were known in the Bregenzerrwald.

This was also the case with Kohler.

Johann Michael Kohler from Schnepfau.

Through diligence and hard work, Kohler became a master cheesemaker. With his saved fortune, he was able to buy the Gasthaus zur Krone in Schnepfau with a rather large farm.

The Gasthaus zur Krone around 1900.

In 1838 Kohler married Maria Anna Moosbrugger from the Gasthaus Rössle in Schoppernau (born 1816). The family grew quickly and 8 children saw the light of day.

Johann Michael Kohler and his wife Maria Anna Moosbrugger.

The Gasthaus zum Rössle on the far left around 1910.

The Gasthaus Rössle in Schoppernau around 1950.


The Schoppernauer stucco worker Kaspar Moosbrugger from the Rössle in Schoppernau was one of the very early emigrants in Vorarlberg. On seasonal work in France in 1844, he joined a construction crew of a French master who had taken over the furnishing of the cathedral in Montreal, Canada.

Kaspar Moosbrugger was a brother of Maria Anna Moosbrugger, Kohler's wife.

He agreed to report to Kohler from America, as Kohler was also toying with the idea of emigrating.

In Montreal in 1848 he married a French Canadian and the couple settled near Chicago. The wife Elmire did not like it there and the family moved to Little Canada, north of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1850. The Moosbruggers were one of the first settlers in Minnesota Territory.

Kaspar Moosbrugger from Schoppernau.

In the new territory of Minnesota the land was allotted in squares of 150 acres which could be acquired whole, halved or quartered.

Moosbrugger had acquired half a square and in consultation (correspondence) with his brother-in-law Kohler, he reserved a square next to it for him.


In May 1853, Mrs. Maria Anna Kohler died at the age of 36.


In November 1853, Kohler married Theresia Natter (born 1828), a housekeeper from Mellau.

She came from the present house of the Martin Bertsch family in Mellau, Oberfeld 103.

House Oberfeld 103 in the 1950s.


This articel warned the people about all the problems of leaving the country.

Bregenzer Wochenblatt 12.7.1853


A travelogue about the 'promised land' America.

Die Presse 8.2.1854


A new, very profitable business for the shipping companies. More than 350,000 people left for the New World via Liverpool in 1854.


Reasons for emigration from the homeland in the 19th century.

According to historian Prof. Dr. Meinrad Pichler, there were several reasons.

From 1850, American fever was rampant in the Habsburg Empire, especially in the textile strongholds of Bohemia and Vorarlberg. The beginning industrialization of the textile industry was to blame. Previously, this had been done in Vorarlberg mainly by home labor. As a result, agriculture was also neglected. This fact and crop failures led to famines in our region starting in 1840. Until 1880, Bohemia and Vorarlberg recorded the most emigration in the Habsburg Empire.

After the French Wars of 1818, the population of Vorarlberg increased from 82,000 to 106,000 by 1848 because of the textile home work. This also led to food shortages.

Due to industrialization in the textile industry, mainly women were hired because they were much cheaper. Many civil engineering projects were already using foreign labor. This led to unemployment among the men.

Many emigrants came from the smallholder-commercial mixed milieu.

At that time, the so-called 'push and pull' syndrome spoke in favor of emigration. Poverty pushed and the hope for better times in the new world pulled.

In the homeland one had nothing or little to lose and the new world lured.

Between 1850 and 1938, about 5,000 men, women and children emigrated to the United States of America from the area of today's Austrian province of Vorarlberg. Most of them were people from the lower strata of the social pyramid.


The advertising campaigns of emigration agencies were forbidden in Austria without state permission until 1867. For Vorarlberg, such advertisements were mostly commissioned by unnamed Swiss agencies.

Innsbrucker Nachrichten 1.4.1852

Most Vorarlberg emigrants took this route to Le Havre, France and then to New York.


Johann Michael Kohler made a good living with his inn and farming. But Kohler was well-read and was so taken by the air of freedom in Switzerland that he was not comfortable with the political situation in Austria at the time.

He sold his entire estate in Schnepfau. It can be read that Kohler left Schnepfau with great enthusiasm.

Johann Michael Kohler wandered with his second wife Theresia and the five children

Jodok born1838

Kaspar born 1941

Theresia born 1842

Johann Michael born 1844

Maria born 1850

and the two brothers-in-law Josef and Johann Baptist Natter from Mellau

in May year 1854 emigrated to America.

Three daughters had all died at baby age:

Maria Rosa Kohler born 1846, deceased 1847.

Maria Christina Kohler born 1847, deceased 1848

Maria Anna Kohler born 1849, deceased probably in the 1st year of life.

All 8 children were baptized in Schnepfau.

Theresia Kohler was probably 5 months pregnant when she left.


The journey to Le Havre, France took 4 days at that time.

In any case, there was no stagecoach service in the Bregenzerwald to Bregenz in 1854. So one had to be brought to Bregenz by family members, neighbors or acquaintances by horse-drawn carriage.

From there, the journey continued by steamboat across Lake Constance to Constance, Germany.

A typical Lake Constance steamboat from this period in front of Montfort Castle in Langenargen.

From Constance they took the stagecoach to St. Louis in Alsace, France.

From 1853 there was a railroad line with 4 changes from St. Louis to Rouen. The rail journey took place on open wagons.

The last stretch from Rouen to Le Havre was again covered by stagecoach.

Although all-inclusive packages were sold, it can be read that people often ran out of money by Le Havre.


An articel about the agents being soul sellers.

Österreichisches Bürgerblatt für Verstand, Herz und gute Laune 27.10.1854


The crossing from Le Havre, France to New York City took 54 days for the Kohler family on the 3 Master parcel ship 'Regulator'.

One more note about the ships. Until around 1855, only sailing ships were used for trans-Atlantic service. These ships took between 40 and 90 days. From 1855 on, steam-powered paddle drives, combined with sails, made the crossing in 14 days. It was not until 1880 that steam propeller ships were available. These ships crossed the Atlantic in 7 - 10 days.

A rare picture of a three-master parcel ship Le Havre - New York.

Conditions on board were less than ideal. The ships were usually hopelessly overloaded with passengers. During longer wind lulls, the crew and passengers ran out of provisions and drinking water became scarce. Crew members often stole the emigrants' belongings. Of course, there were no lifeboats and against seasickness one had to carry a bottle of vinegar?

This was the situation on the steerage of the Trans-Atlantic Liner.

The Kohler family had to bring food and cooking utensils for the crossing. Wood for cooking was provided.

According to tradition, in a strong storm the captain ordered all men on deck to help. Kohler refused on the grounds that his contract did not stipulate that he had to work. After the captain threatened to have him thrown overboard, he reluctantly obeyed.

The Kohler family arrived in New York City in July 1854.


Beginning in 1855, immigrants had been channeled through the landing depot at Castle Garden on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Prior to that, immigrants disembarked at various places in New York City. Where the Kohler family set foot on American soil is not documented.

Castle Clinton (Castle Garden) circa 1855.

Starting in 1892, immigrants were then processed on Ellis Island.

By the way, the Statue of Liberty was only inaugurated in 1886 and was not even planned at that time.


The Kohler family's destination was clear.

St. Paul, Minnesota to brother-in-law Kaspar Moosbrugger and his wife.

The English language should not be too much of a problem. In the Minnesota settlement areas at that time, more residents spoke German than English.

According to historical accounts, the Kohlers arrived in Minnesota by the following route:

The new railroad took them as far as Chicago, Illinois.

The Kohlers were lucky. The through railroad New York City - Chicago with 4 changes was started a year earlier (1853). To this day, the USA has a purely private railroad network.

According to tradition, the Kohlers made a stop in Galesburg, Illinois. There was a German settlement there. I suspect that Kohler's heavily pregnant wife simply needed to recuperate.

There is also lore after the Kohlers made the stop in Galena, Illinois.

The distance from Chicago to Galesburg or Galena was probably covered by stagecoach.

From Galesburg , Illinois it was not too far to the Mississippi port at Davenport, Iowa.

From Galena, Illionois they probably embarked at Dubuque, Iowa.

It was possible to get as far as St. Paul, Minnesota, by steamboat.

In the port of St. Paul in 1858.


The Kohlers reached St. Paul on August 3, 1854.

Johann Kaspar Moosbrugger had actually been looking forward to seeing his sister.

Now he learned that his sister had died the previous year. How Kohler's second wife Theresia was received is not documented.

The Kohler family lived in a duplex with Kaspar Moosbrugger in the Little Canada area of Saint Paul.

Saint Paul had a population of 4,500 at the time. Today, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Twin City has a population of 2.8 million people.

Kohler bought the square of land next to his brother-in-law and began to cultivate it for dairy farming. Soon a dairy farm was established, which provided the family with a livelihood.

Johann Michael Kohler fathered another 9 children with his second wife Theresia.

The eldest daughter Maria Anna was born shortly after their arrival in Minnesota.

Kohler was already 50 years old when the child blessing with the 2nd wife Maria Theresia started.


An emigrant who warns the homeland not to come

Innsbrucker Nachrichten 27.1.1855


At the time the Kohlers settled in Minnesota, there were more Indians there than settlers.

One day, Indians visited the Kohler family. They were totally fascinated when they were shown the pendulum clock in the parlor. As good Bregenzerwald hosts, they offered the Indians cheese. They spat out the cheese and never came back.

Johann Michael Kohler is said to have been a very strict man. The son Johann Michael is said to have often left the house through the window and entered Uncle Kaspar's house through the window.


In 1860 the Kohler family received American citizenship.

Kohler and Moosbrugger had the teacher Josef Anton Moosbrugger from Au join them for their total of 24 children. Although all the children were educated in English, the teacher was mainly responsible for their musical education.

The Kohler and Moosbrugger children pioneered musical education in the wild Northwest. Nearly all of the daughters were organists in the surrounding churches. Albert Kohler was a noted violinist and Johann Michael Jr. later had an opera house built in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.


The territory of Minnesota was annexed to the United States in 1849 and on

May 11, 1858, the 32nd state of the United States.

Now Little Canada became the community of White Bear. Kaspar Moosbrugger sat on the new town council as the first councilor.

Today there is still a Kohler and a Moosbrugger Road in White Bear.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. He wanted to abolish slavery in the South. In response, the southern states (shown in red) seceded from the United States and formed a federation. A war of secession followed from 1861 to 1865.

The Midwest (shown in black) did not yet belong to the Union. This area was mainly settled over the next 20 years.

The Kohler family's abodes in the states of Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin were already part of the United States by 1954. The Native Americans (Indians) were being pushed more and more to the West and the free land was ready for the settlers.

Whether Johann Michael Kohler Sr. had to go to the Civil War is not known.

Answer by Prof. Dr. Günter Bischof, Mellau, lecturer at the University of New Orleans for American history:

It probably depends on whether Kohler was already a US citizen in 1860/1, in which case he would have had to enlist (unless the family had paid to send a replacement - that could be arranged. Many of the soldiers also volunteered for the war (depending on how patriotic they were...).


Johann Michael Kohler Jr. now called John Michael Kohler II, went to Chicago in 1862. He continued his education at Dyhrenfurth College in the evenings and earned a living as a delivery driver, later as a clerk, and from 1865 to 1868 as a salesman in Chicago. He then accepted a position as a sales representative for a wholesale grocer. A year later, he moved to a furniture store and worked in the same capacity until 1871.


More warnings about the bad conditions in America.

Das Vaterland 27.9.1864


Wiener Zeitung 2.4.1870


In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 56 miles north of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, Kohler met Lillie Vollrath (1848-1883), the daughter of local iron and steel industrialist Jacob Vollrath (1824-1898), through his repeated agent visits, and married her in 1871. Jacob Vollrath was also an emigrant and came from Dörrebach near Stromberg in the Hunsrück region (then the left bank of the Prussian Rhine Province), where he had learned the trade in forgeable cast iron (poodle iron).

The town of Sheboygan on Lake Michigan (red dot).

The father-in-law Jacob Vollrath was at that time the richest citizen of the town of 40,000 inhabitants Sheboygan.

Jacob Vollrath came to America in 1845.


Shortly after his marriage, Kohler additionally worked in a small machine shop and foundry called the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry, in which his father-in-law was a partner, making farm implements (plowshares), cast iron pipes, boilers, cookstoves, and windmills.


John Michael Kohler II (center) visiting Uncle Kaspar in front of the farmhouse in White Bear, Minnesota.

f. l. sons Anthony, Frank with daughter Evangelia, Elmire and Kaspar Moosbrugger, sons Albert and Joseph.

John Michael Kohler II fathered 6 children with his wife Lillie.


On Dec. 3, 1873, during the great stock market crash, he and his partner Charles Silberzahn bought the company from his father-in-law and named it Kohler & Silberzahn.

Kohler & Silberzahn employed 21, mostly German-speaking immigrants at the time.

After the stock market crash came a 5-year-long slump. Many companies and also farmers went bankrupt at that time. Somehow Kohler managed to keep his company afloat. Often he had to accept goods in kind instead of dollars. It is assumed that he used these goods to pay the workers at that time.


In 1874, father Johann Michael Kohler died in Minnesota.

He went down in history as the Tyrolean cheese man. He and his descendants became the well-known dairy products manufacturer in Minnesota. They also sold hay and lumber.

One of the Kohler Ice Cream parlors in Minnesota in the 1930s. Kohler Icecreams and milkshakes were offered here.

After 135 years, the Kohler descendants in Minnesota sold the last of the founding-era settlement farms to a real estate broker in 1989.


Silberzahn sold his minority interest in 1878 to two employees, Herman Hayssen and John Stehn, and the Kohler, Hayssen & Stehn Manufacturing Company was formed.

The Kohler factory burned to the ground in 1880. It was rebuilt elsewhere in Sheboygan and an enameling shop was added.

The new factory around 1882.

With skilled workers from Bohemia and Austria enameled iron articles became more and more a best seller.


John Michael Kohler II.

This area was very favorable to metalworking operations because there was plenty of lumber and sand. The transportation of raw materials and finished goods by ship across Lake Michigan was almost ideal.


Feldkircher Nachrichten 14.2.1883

The fast steamer Elbe of the North German Lloyd made the crossing in 9 days.

This steamer brought Kohler new skilled workers from home.


In 1883, Kohler mounted ornamentally designed feet under a cast-iron enameled water trough (horse trough) and sold the design as a bathtub. This created the first of many Kohler sanitary products. The success of the business forced him to keep expanding it.

As a next step Kohler started to produce enameled pots, basins and bathtubs with Austrian and Bohemian specialists. In addition to the agricultural equipment, now more and more sanitary items such as bathtubs, faucets and the like were produced.

Brochure from the year 1883.


Four years later, the company, which now had 125 employees, made more than two-thirds of its business sales from sanitary and enamel products, and produced enameled bathroom and kitchen fixtures in high volume.


In 1883 Kohler's wife Lillie died at the age of 35.


Jakob Kopf from Au was the company photographer of Kohler for many years.

Kohler established a nationwide distribution system that sold only Kohler products.


In 1887 Kohler married the sister of his late wife, Wilhelmina Vollrath. From this marriage came son Herbert Vollrath Kohler in 1891.

The Kohler family seat in Sheboygan, which today houses the cultural center.


In 1892, Kohler was elected mayor of Sheboygan. He set especially cultural initiatives. Among other things, he founded a theater, where his children excelled in amateur theater.


By the end of the century, as bathrooms, water closets and running water became commonplace in the homes of middle-class families in the United States, Kohler's big moment arrived. By 1900, Kohler was already the largest plumbing supply company in the United States.


Kohler could only suggest his great industrial and cultural vision, not realize it. To create a model industrial park where people lived and worked in harmony, where the social ills of other industrial regions were avoided from the outset through forward-thinking architectural, social welfare and educational planning.

In 1899 Kohler purchased in Riverside County about20 acres Farmland.

The new factory with some outposts employed 4000 workers and employees at the turn of the century.


In 1900, John Michael Kohler II passed away at the age of 56.

Later, the restless industrial pioneer received a marble resting bench from his descendants.

The four biological siblings had all married and are now buried in Minnesota and Oregon.


After the father's passing, sons Robert J. Kohler became president, Walter chief financial officer and Carl secretary of the Kohler Company.

After the new iron foundry burned down in 1901, operations were moved back to the old site in Sheboygan. The company was restructured and now called J.M. Kohler Sons Co.


The main office building. The streetcar brought employees from Sheboygan, 7 km away.


After the untimely death of Robert J. Kohler, brother Walter J. Kohler became president of the company in 1905.

Walter J. Kohler led the company for the next 35 years.


In 1911, the first bathtub cast in one piece was launched on the market.


In 1912, the company received its present name: Kohler Co.

Riverside was now renamed Kohler Village.

In 1913, Theresa Kohler passed away in Minnesota.


By 1914, Kohler maintained sales offices in the 4 largest cities in America and in London.

Kohler paid above-average wages, reduced hours, gave its workers life and health insurance, as well as vacation and retirement gifts.


In 1912, Kohler Village had 12 board houses, a school, and a 'plague' hut for quarantined sick people.

To bring order to the rampant Kohler Village, Kohler traveled Europe with an architect and looked at various garden sites.

In 1916, German-born architect and urban planner Werner Hegemann (1881-1936) was commissioned to build the remarkable estate.

In 1917, the firm of Olmsted Brothers of Boston prepared a 50-year master plan for the development of Kohler Village.

Olmsted, a landscape architect, also designed New York Central Park, among other projects.


The USA did not enter the world war until 1917. At Kohler, operations were now converted to armaments.

The company now produced anchors for land mines, projectiles and shells for bombs.


In 1918, the 'American Club' opened in Kohler Village. This building was occupied by single male immigrants who found work at Kohler.


In October 1919, Ravine Park opened in Kohler.

The American 'March King' John Phillip Sousa and his orchestra played for 10.000 spectators and listeners.

Walter J. Kohler welcomes John Phillip Sousa at the station.

The most famous march by John Phillip Sousa.


In 1920, Kohler Village was completed. The retort model city was designed by international architects, technicians, landscape designers and social scientists. This model gained international recognition at that time.

Kohler Village has a size of 12 square kilometers.

The brochure of the Kohler company with its new village Kohler Village.

Pictures from the brochure from 1920.

Postcard of Kohler Village with factory site.


In 1920, Kohler entered the engine business and designed the world's first gasoline generator.


Already in 1920, the company Kohler was a complete bathroom supplier. It supplied the ceramic tiles, sinks, bathtubs, toilets, and all the fittings and accessories. All this was produced in house.


In 1923, Walter J. Kohler had the stately home on Riverbend built for his family. From then on, Chicago's high society was here at every turn.

In 1923, Walter J. Kohler had the stately home on Riverbend built for his family. From then on, Chicago's high society was here at every turn.

Walter J. Kohler with his wife Charlotte.


In 1924, Kohler Stables, which later became an important breeding facility for show horses, opened.


In 1924, Kohler established the 'Quarter Century Club' to recognize employees with 25 years of company service.


In 1925, the new main office building was opened.


From 1926 had offered company tours.

In the new 'brass' building from now on bathroom - and kitchen faucets were produced.

Walter J. Kohler with his 3 unmarried sisters in flat hat, stepmother Wilhelmine and wife Charlotte.


From 1927 the production had been changed more and more to porcelain.

1927 was an important milestone for the Kohler company, when enameled and also porcelain sanitary ware in pastel shades was already offered.


The three Kohler daughters with stepmother Wilhelmine.

In 1927, Kohler introduced the electric sink to the market. This was the predecessor of the dishwasher.


The editor of the New York Times visiting Kohler.


In 1928, Walter J. Kohler had an airfield built in Sheboygan.

He bought the sister plane to the Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh was the first to cross the Atlantic.

Kohler's pilot Lt. Werner Bunge with Walter J. Kohler.

Kohler's drive, determination to see things through, even in the face of opposition, and a certain defiance were characteristic of all of them.

Against the toughest opposition from his own party, Walter J. Kohler won a run for governor in Wisconsin at the Supreme Court. He won the election, but was not reelected by his party after two years.

The election campaign also took place in German.

The new governor in front of his house with his wife, 3 sisters and half-brother Herbert.

Walter J. Kohler was now in Madison, the nation's capital, during the week.

Walter J. Kohler continued to run the company on weekends.

The company's own aircraft was used to fly back and forth.


In 1929, the Kohler family had a Bregenzerwald house built in Kohler Village. The idea came from Walter Kohler's sister, Marie Christine Kohler, who was a co-founder of what would later become the Kohler Foundation. To this day, the Kohler Foundation is responsible for many social, cultural and health projects in the state of Wisconsin.

Sculptor and architect Kaspar Albrecht, a native of Au, was commissioned to design and oversee the construction.


This also made it in the news in Austria.

Vorarlberger Tagblatt 9.11.1929

The Wälderhaus was intended as a reminder of the Gasthaus Rössle in Schoppernau, the childhood home of Johann Michael Kohler's biological mother.

The Wälderhaus at the opening in 1931.

Kaspar Albrecht.

Kaspar Albrecht at work in Wisconsin.

The 'Geser' tiled stove was dismantled in the Rössle in Schoppernau and rebuilt here. The Kohler family had contributed money to renovate the Rössle in Schoppernau in the 1930s. Today there is also a 'Geser' tiled stove there again.

The event hall.

The Girl Scouts at the opening.

The Wälderhaus opened in July 1931. It became the headquarters of the Kohler Women's Club and the Girl Scouts. The Wälderhaus is designed for smaller events.

Vorarlberger Volksblatt 21.8.1931

The first Christmas at the Wälderhaus.


Launch of the Kohler washing machine.


The Great Depression from 1929 to 1941 also affected the Kohler company. Kohler tried to keep the workers at lower wages. This caused great resentment among long-time employees and the first strike was foreseeable.

The Kohler family also supported their relatives in the Bregenzerwald in times of need.


The Kohler Village ten years after the creation.


In 1933, there was the first prototype of an autotram. This streamlined fast car with a Kohler gasoline generator was intended to complement the railroads.


How the social conscience of the Kohler company was disenchanted.

In 1933 free trade unions were allowed in the USA.

Kohler then formed a works council. Many of the workers joined. But the unions penetrated the plants at that time and stirred up the workers.

As early as October 1933, the union tried to enforce collective agreements at Kohler. The negotiations with Kohler came to nothing. In June 1934, the union presented Kohler with a 14-point plan. Four days later, Kohler closed the entire plant. Around July 4 (National Day), Kohler usually closed his factories for a few days and sponsored a picnic for the entire workforce. This time, however, he did not specify when they planned to reopen. There probably wasn't a free picnic either.

Walter J. Kohler simply would not see that the staff was turning on him. His family had given people jobs, provided affordable housing, offered recreational opportunities in a safe village, and so on. The family was offended like the parents of ungrateful children and personally insulted.

Walter J. Kohler entered the company premises in front of the striking workers.

Soon there was violence among the workers and Kohler Village was closed to traffic. Special sheriffs were ordered by Kohler, there was vandalism and at last count 48 injured and 2 dead.

Walter Kohler was locked in his office for 12 days and had to be freed by 250 National Guard men.

The National Guard guarded the main building.

Then in September, there were secret ballots at Kohler and the workforce spoke out against the union. This, of course, was a victory for Kohler, initially.


The damage caused by the labor unrest was repaired.

The company's monthly magazine published a special issue on the strike.