Walter J. Kohler was twenty-five years old in 1900 when he took over the plumbing equipment company founded decades earlier by his father in Sheboygan. Young Kohler expanded and diversified the company into the manufacturer of gasoline motors and stand-alone electrical generators. When commercial aviation began in the early 1920s, Kohler heard opportunity whistling in the whir of the propellers.
The United States was creating a system of lighted airways to guide pilots and passengers safely through the skies. Kohler coupled his gasoline motors and electric generators into "Automatic Electric Plants" to power airway beacons in off-grid locations. By 1932, more than 1200 Kohler units were up and running throughout the United States. By the end of the decade they were powering light and radio beacons on the China Clipper route across the Pacific, in South America, and the Antarctic.
At home, Kohler saw the potential of aviation for business travel, purchased the same model Ryan cabin plane that Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic, and built an airport in his home village.
When he ran for governor in 1928, Kohler made greater use of the airplane than any other Wisconsin political leader had yet to do. After landing in 42 counties and logging 7,200 miles, he won the election and immediately became known as "The Flying Governor."
At his own expense, Kohler used his airplane for state business and he used the bully pulpit afforded by his office to promote aviation. He called on local governments to work with businesses to build airports and for the states of the Midwest to coordinate aviation policy. He hosted commercial air tours at Kohler and expanded the number of aviation aides in the Wisconsin National Guard.
In 1930, he was honored on "Wisconsin Day" at the National Air Races for "his indomitable enthusiasm in the cause of aviation." Walter Kohler's term in office lasted only two years, but his impact and reputation as Wisconsin's Flying Governor" survives to this day.