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The Boston Phoenix Seduction Line

The industrial state still exists. And it's giving out free safety glasses.

By Tom Scocca

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Most Americans value industry strictly in the abstract. We are aware, as a point of national pride, that we owe wealth, health, and fortune to our industrial achievement. We are surrounded by the fruits of manufacturing. But the industrial process we take for granted. "I think as a society, we're pretty used to just plugging something in," says Brookline author Karen Axelrod. "You stick your key in your ignition, or you open your cereal box up, and you don't really think about it."

Axelrod knows the back-story. With her husband and coauthor Bruce Brumberg, she has spent the last five years on a behind-the-scenes tour of industrial America. The couple has seen the working of lathes and hydraulic presses, enrobing machines and cheese rakes, lipstick ovens and rivet guns. Their book, Watch It Made in the U.S.A. (John Muir Publications), is a 368-page guide to factory tours and company visitors' centers in 49 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Released this past fall in its second edition, the book is both introduction and paean to the curious and cheap pleasures of factory tourism, and to the American factory system itself, circa the late '90s.

For all the gaseous and high-sounding talk in the press about how our economic future lies in "information" and "services," there are still a lot of people in this country who earn a living making things out of steel and hot chemicals. Also potatoes. As a nation, we are doing a booming business in potato chips; the book features no fewer than 16 snack-food companies, including the Cape Cod Potato Chip plant, in Hyannis. To judge by the index, we are also big, industrial-might-wise, in glassware, candy, beer, and recreational vehicles.

Not that those are the biggest pieces of the gross domestic product. But Axelrod and Brumberg were looking for the plants that presented the best factory-tour experience, some combination of access, spectacle, and inherent interest. They wanted, Brumberg says, to capture particular regional industries, like Wisconsin cheese and Louisiana hot sauce operations; they also aimed for a mix of the ultra-famous (Levi Strauss) with the singular and obscure (Hoegh Industries pet caskets). Watch It Made may be a niche travel book, but it's meant to have broad appeal.

The attraction of factory touring is not hard to understand. Things move fast: at a Coca-Cola plant in Kentucky, the book reports, "the filler shoots 12 ounces of soda into 1500 aluminum cans per minute. . . . [Cans] twirl single-file along the line so fast the writing on their labels blurs." Things get hot: at the Kohler plant in Wisconsin, you can watch as "workers gingerly remove red-hot bathtubs, lavatories, and kitchen sinks from ovens." The processes behind everyday products are revealed: in Nevada, "ropes of marshmallow slowly flow along the conveyer belt under a snowfall of cornstarch . . . a blade chops the ropes into uniform lengths."

"I like watching big machines make big machines," Brumberg says. "I like the stamping at the car places. . . . You see car door after car door and hood after hood stamped out, and the whole plant shudders with the thunderous roar of the presses."

There are more contemplative pleasures, too: the pastoral calm of Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries, the leisurely preparation of cheese in Vermont. In Dublin, Texas, the world's oldest Dr Pepper plant uses slow-moving 1940s machinery that makes bottles "rise, drop, and turn like amusement-park carousel horses, then do-si-do and waddle single-file down conveyer belts."

Diverting as the image may be, it probably won't get the average reader to hop the next flight to central Texas. "For most people, it's something you add to an existing trip," Axelrod explains. So, for instance, you could take a break from visiting Disney World to tour the E-One fire-truck factory in Ocala, Florida, or duck away from Chicago to see the Revell-Monogram plastic model plant in Morton Grove, Illinois. Still, the book does have a section devoted to factory-tour travel itineraries: on its three-day Boston-based trip, for instance, you could start in the city with the Samuel Adams brewery, the National Braille Press, and the Wm. S. Haynes flute factory, then wend your way into New Hampshire for yogurt and apple pie, followed by a third day, still in New Hampshire, of Budweiser, spring water, and pewter.

But if you didn't, the authors wouldn't mind too much. Though they've made factory tours something of a personal obsession (they admit to rescheduling a flight home from the Caribbean so they could visit the Bacardi plant), they're not eccentrics: Brumberg also publishes legal and financial newsletters, and Axelrod is a former retail hosiery buyer. They keep their perspective. "No one's going to go on more than one or two potato-chip-factory tours in life," Brumberg says. "We wanted people to sense what the experience is like."

Some entries are almost too evocative. The description of the Creegan Company, where residents of economically depressed Steubenville, Ohio, work for "the nation's largest manufacturer of animated and costume characters," sounds like something out of David Lynch: "puppet heads, scenery, and props lurk behind silk flowers. . . . A large, lifelike white gorilla stands beside three rosy-cheeked elves. During some tours, an employee dressed as Beary Bear wanders around." Then there's doll-making at Lee Middleton, in Belpre, Ohio, where at one point "air is pumped into the head, temporarily expanding it like a balloon and enlarging the eye sockets. Workers then insert eyes into the openings and focus them."

What the armchair tourist misses out on, though, is the complimentary tour souvenirs and samples, which get their own section in each entry. Some of Axelrod and Brumberg's "freebies" are just brochures, catalogues, or pens, but many are so intoxicatingly cool they bring on a patriotic thrill: small pewter snowflakes, a card showing Chicago Board of Trade hand signals, a plastic circuit board, safety glasses, a fishing lure, food made with Wild Turkey, a Braille copy of My Weekly Reader, a Louisiana oyster, ore samples, miniature hockey-stick drink stirrers, a chrome whistle, maple candies, a barrel bung, stationery, guitar scrap, and -- from a free tour, yet -- felt-covered piano hammers. To say nothing of foods plucked right from the assembly line, such as jelly beans in various stages of manufacture, still-warm snack chips, and "the freshest Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes you've ever eaten."

Unfortunately, that last one, from Interstate Brands in Natick, is no longer available; the plant has suspended tours, citing increased demand. The problem with factory tours is that factories have to get their regular work done. Add liability concerns and the desire to guard trade secrets, and many companies are opting out, replacing their tours with visitors' centers or museums. In some cases, they've created Potemkin facilities, which produce token amounts of product for demonstration purposes (Binney-Smith, whose CEO contributed a foreword to the book, now has one such plant for Crayolas, and the Samuel Adams brewery in Boston is arguably another example, since almost all of the company's output is contract-brewed elsewhere, at big brewing plants.)

"Obviously, our preference would be to be able to go on the factory floor," Axelrod says. "The best tour, from our own personal perspective, is where you can go to a small chocolate company, where you can go right between two enrobing machines, which are like the chocolate waterfalls -- you practically want to stick your finger in it."

To convince companies of the value of letting people get that close, Axelrod and Brumberg have started offering their services as factory-tour consultants. "People get bombarded by images in advertising, and it doesn't really stick with them," Brumberg says. "If you can get someone to come through your plant and spend time with you, that's when you're going to establish a relationship and connect with the customer."

From the tourists' point of view, too, the authors keep their eyes on the big picture. "Some of the hope of writing this book," Axelrod says, "is that a few more kids will grow up to be engineers and help keep manufacturing strong." And even if a factory tour doesn't change somebody's career plans, it still has its value. "I mean," she says, "there are just so many times you can take your kids to Hercules."

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.

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