Kathleen Rammer still wants to know why – why did Herb Kohler Jr. go back on his word? He made her a promise on Christmas Eve, 2013, “Before this all started,” Rammer said. Before Kohler Co. proposed to build a championship, Pete Dye golf course on top of a globally rare wetland and clear cut a 200 year-old forest of white pine and Wisconsin beech.
Also before the company simply demanded, and was told it would receive, through a DNR permitting process, land that belongs to a Wisconsin State Park and thereby the people of this state. Kohler said it needed this land to build a 22,500 sq. ft. golf-course maintenance facility and a traffic rotary capable of funneling 400,000 cars for the Ryder Cup right through the entrance to Kohler-Andrae State Park.
Let’s be clear. That hasn’t happened yet, and in the end, it may yet be stopped. But it has also been reported by Black River residents that, though its permit to build on top of the wetland has been at-least temporarily revoked, something is happening on the Kohler land that looks a bit like high-capacity wells are being dug, the kind you don’t really need to dig in the middle of a wetland.
But the worst of it, the bull-dozing, the clear-cutting, would already have happened, if not for a committed group of Sheboygan County residents who call themselves the Friends of the Black River Forest. Black River Forest in the Town of Wilson is their neighborhood. The group formed to oppose Kohler’s golf course plans, which they believe spells devastation for the state park, for a critical wetland, and also for their neighborhood.
But on Christmas Eve 2013, Kohler’s plans had not yet been announced. Yet Rammer was still worried. She was leaving the barn where she stables her horses when she saw Herb V. Kohler Jr. pull up to the stop sign in the BMW she jokingly called “the grey ghost,” a car whose license plate she immediately recognized.
Rammer had been the first female supervisor at the Kohler manufacturing plant. And she was not shy about talking to the billionaire golf enthusiast. When you work for Kohler in Sheboygan County, you’re part of the family.
Like other residents of the Black River Forest neighborhood, where the houses seem to emerge from uncut forest between the Black River and the shore of Lake Michigan, Kathleen grew up in Sheboygan County across the road from Kohler-Andrae State Park (formerly Terry Andrae State Park, named for the wealthy Wisconsinite who donated most of the land).
Like other residents of Black River, Rammer was aware that something was percolating within the privileged confines of the billionaire Kohler family. Kohler Company is privately held, and the amount of secrecy and non-disclosure that entitles them to would dazzle the FBI. Yet, she and other residents had been given free access to the Kohler land, a friendly practice that has ceased since Black River residents became so intensely interested in what was happening there.
“There were beautiful trails through the Kohler land,” Rammer says. “He let us ride and walk and use the property all those years.” People had their own name for the Kohler land north of Kohler-Andrae. They called it Kohler Dunes. And Kathleen and other community members were attached, not just to being able to ride there, but to the pristine beauty of the land itself.
Kathleen says she ad Herbert V. Kohler, would “often pass each other” when she worked at Kohler’s stables, “foaling his colts.” So she felt comfortable enough, on this occasion, which was, after all, Christmas Eve, to angle her truck in front of Kohler’s BMW, “so he couldn’t go forward.” She wanted to know what would be happening on the land, since changes were clearly afoot.
Kohler, who recognized his former employee’s truck, rolled down his window. And then she gave him the full-court press. “I said, ‘Mr. Kohler, Merry Christmas.’ He looked like Santa Claus! He said, ‘I’m going to play Santa for my grandchildren.’ Then he said, ‘Merry Christmas and God bless you.’ I started crying. I said, ‘Mr. Kohler, please don’t destroy the land.’”
Herb Kohler’s reply to Kathleen that night was reassuring, an example of the noblesse oblige that the Kohler family has always demonstrated to its employees and former workers. A $7 billion company, Kohler is #51 on Forbes list of America’s best employers.
Through his rolled-down window, dressed, appropriately, as Santa Claus, Herb Kohler said, “Don’t worry, Kathleen. That land has been in my family for four generations. And it will never be developed.”
Kathleen wanted to believe him. Of course she did. Why would a nice-guy company like Kohler, the company that employed Kathleen her entire working life, a company that was remaking its name and reputation from a manufacturer of high-end faucets and proprietor of a nice Sheboygan County hotel and moving into “sustainable” plumbing products that deal with the earth in an eco-friendly manner. Would a company like that bull-doze a globally rare wetland and clear-cut a 200 year old forest on one of the last pieces of land of its kind on the shores of Lake Michigan? Land that is comprised almost entirely of sand and windblown grass? Would a great company like Kohler dump hundreds of tons of black dirt on top of that sand, just so so they could throw down roll upon roll of Kentucky Blue Grass and dust it all off with as many gallons of Round-up as that grass could hold?
Why would they do that? Why, Mr. Kohler, why? Especially when you already have a championship, Pete Dye-designed golf-course just 16 miles up the road, and it’s not making money – at least not enough to pay taxes on, according to the company – and most people are too scared to play it.
All that is part of the question, which could be summed up in one sentence, the question that Kathleen Rammer so much wanted an answer to that she sent Herb V. Kohler Jr. a certified letter because he wasn’t taking her calls or answering her messages or anybody else’s from her neighborhood, after the plans for the golf course were publicly announced. The certified letter where she asked him, straight out, “I need to know, Mr. Kohler. What happened to ‘never’?”
Before we try to answer that question for ourselves, since it’s likely that “never” is when Herb Kohler is getting back to us, let’s take a bit closer look at what is at stake, what every one of us — citizens, residents, taxpayers — stands to lose if a globally rare Lake Michigan eco-system is destroyed.
Next: What’s at Stake: More than 200 animal species, some of them threatened. (Why Mr. Kohler? P2)