by Karen Axelrod, Bruce Brumberg, and Matt Simon
The irony of leisure is that it can sometimes be hard work. It is not always easy for parents to find activities that are fun both for their children and for themselves.
Educational as well as entertaining, factory tours and visits to company museums and related attractions can make a superb day out for people of all ages. In fact, touring manufacturing sites to see how everyday products are made has become increasingly popular in America. The cost is low, and many tours are free (or give free samples). Moreover, there are tours for every taste and interest: food, agriculture, toys, cars, motorcycles, mining, aircraft, NASA sites, glassware, ceramics, arts, entertainment, news media, television – even butterflies.
That is a diverse list. Indeed, though it has become a standard expression in tourism, the phrase "factory tour" is sometimes a misnomer, as many tours do not actually involve factories. Workshops, studios, farms, mines, and museums are all regular stops on the “factory tour” trail.
What to Expect from a Tour
Factory tours and similar attractions aren’t just for people in manufacturing or business; and while seeing how things are made is fascinating and fun, these tours are not just about production. At their core, factory tours open unique windows on the diverse jobs and lifestyles that exist in America – practical lessons in social studies. When you take a factory tour or visit a company museum, you find out how the company started and grew, and learn about the history of the industry in which the company works. You see how and where the workers spend their days. If you take enough tours, you may even get a new perspective on the American economy, workplace productivity and job creation. How to Find Tours
Wherever you travel in the US, you are likely to be within reach of a work-related tour, so keep your eyes open for them. You may want to consult the local chamber of commerce, convention and visitors’ bureau, or state travel office, as they often provide information about factory tours in their areas. Most companies that give tours provide information about them on their websites, so if a particular company’s products interest you and your family, have a look. (Sometimes information about tours is buried deep in websites, so you may have to dig.) If a company you would love to visit does not give public tours, don’t lose hope. Contact its department of public affairs or human resources – it doesn’t hurt to ask. With persistence, you can tour many firms as long as you are not employed by a direct
competitor. Before You Go
Whether you are a parent, a trip leader, or a teacher, you can do many things to help your children make the most of the learning experience while still having fun. Before you go, talk about the products whose manufacture you are about to see − whether toys, the daily newspaper, food in the shopping bag, or the family piano. Ask your kids how they think the products are made: How does toothpaste get into the tube? Where does milk come from? How is glass made? In the kitchen or classroom, try making your own batch of bread, fudge, or pretzels. This will give children a frame of reference when they see how the factory makes the same thing on a much larger scale.
You may also want to do some background research with your children. Check the library for books on the history of automobiles, or on the invention of corn flakes. See the website of the company you plan to visit. Discuss what your children want to learn on the trip. What questions do they want to answer? Write them down and bring them with you.
Lastly, before you go, you may want to call the company to confirm not only the tour times but also the manufacturing schedule, as it is generally most instructive to tour a factory during working hours. Also, some tours have minimum ages, and it is extremely important to find out in advance − do not assume that tour operators will be flexible about a posted minimum age, as the company’s legal department may require them to adhere to it.A Few Words of Caution
That last point brings up the issue of safety. Obviously, when you are touring a real manufacturing site that bristles with machines and tools, it is extremely important to follow the company’s safety guidelines. Children must understand that factories can be dangerous. Be sure to tell them that, when they are on a tour, they must listen to the tour guide, wear any protective gear the guide gives them, and walk only where they are allowed.
Tours in New York City and Beyond
As we note above, you can find factory tours, company museums, and similar attractions in just about any region where it is possible to have a vacation in the United States.
Below we describe a couple of notable tours in New York City and a few elsewhere in the Northeast:
Steinway, Long Island City, Queens (www.steinway.com)
. It takes one year and about 12,000 parts to make a Steinway piano. You can tour the company’s manufacturing headquarters in Queens, where over 500 craftspeople hand-build 2,800 pianos every year. High drama accompanies rim-bending: the process of forming a piano’s curved exterior. Six people carry a laminated rock-maple board (often with 18 layers) to one of the piano-shaped presses. They wrestle the wood, bending it around the press, and then hammer, screw, and clamp it into place. Each rim stays on the press for a day. Once removed, rims “rest” for at least six weeks in a sauna-hot darkened room. In another area, soundboards are custom-fit into each piano. Workers install the bridge to which strings will be attached. Saws hiss and the floors vibrate with banging and drilling. In the stringing department, workers attach each metal string to the plate (or “harp”), loop it tightly around the bridge, and then clamp it around the tuning pin. Elsewhere, in soundproof rooms, master voicers regulate the key-and-hammer mechanisms and test musical quality. (Please note that the minimum age for this tour is 15.) CNN, New York, New York (www.cnn.com/insidecnn)
. In our world of 24-hour media, news flows like running water − it’s easy to take it for granted. But how exactly is news gathered and brought to us? Since Ted Turner introduced 24-hour television news with CNN in the 1980’s, the network has become a major news provider. The Inside CNN tour of its bureau at Time Warner Center in Manhattan shows you how the network operates. A popular part of the tour is the interactive special-effects area. A visitor in your group who isn’t shy can volunteer to demonstrate the use of a teleprompter. This device feeds lines of text to anchors as they gaze at the camera, letting them talk directly to viewers while they read out news (not as easy as it seems). You can also try the chroma key which is used for reporting weather forecasts. Standing in front of a blank screen, you watch yourself on a monitor as a weather map or other backdrop is projected behind your image. The trick is accurately indicating features behind you that you can see only on the monitor. You also look at a busy newsroom, visit the studio floors of popular shows, and see the computer hub that manages CNN’s flow of information.Sterling Hill Mining Museum, Ogdensburg, New Jersey (www.sterlinghill.org).
Not many people know that mining once thrived just an hour west of Manhattan. Located in the rural Skylands country of northwestern New Jersey, the Franklin-Sterling Hill mining district was for two centuries a source of over 340 zinc-based minerals – a record concentration of different minerals in one locality. Although underground mining no longer occurs in New Jersey, the Sterling Hill Mining Museum records the history of mining in the district with a vast collection and a real mine you can tour. The segment you see is 1,300 feet long and extends horizontally 150 feet into the hill adjacent to the museum. In a constant temperature of 56°F, you walk along a series of lit tunnels with floors of hard-packed gravel and solid marble walls until, eventually, you reach one of the ore bodies. Many of the minerals in this district fluoresce brilliantly in ultraviolet (black) light. This light, which is invisible to our eyes, is absorbed by the minerals, which then emit visible light that we perceive in various colors. Under the ultraviolet lights that the museum has installed in the mineshaft, the zinc ores glow red, blue, violet, yellow, and green.
Gillinder Glass, Port Jervis, NY (www.gillinderglassstore.com)
. Gillinder Glass makes half of all the airport runway lights in the United States. Located in Port Jervis, right at the junction of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, its friendly and hospitable factory gives visitors a close look at the process of making hand-pressed glass products. On the tour you learn how glass is made from sand, soda ash, and limestone, and how chemical recipes are used to create the colors. From a safe but close distance in the factory, visitors watch molten glass emerge from the furnace. Using a rod with a clay head, the gatherer pulls out a glowing ball of hot liquid glass and swings around to drip it into a mold. Once the item has been pressed into form, workers remove it from the mold and set it aside to cool. The team works fast – as you would expect of people who have all those runway lights to make.Harley-Davidson, York, Pennsylvania (www.harley-davidson.com)
. Harley-Davidson has come a long way from the tiny shed where its founders built their first motorcycle in 1903. At several plants in the U.S. Harley-Davidson now makes hundreds of motorcycles every day. You can see for yourself what goes into these famous machines by touring the company’s factory in York, PA. The tour takes you past the many stages involved in making parts and assembling them into motorcycles. You can see firsthand how fenders, fuel tanks, and exhaust pipes are transformed out of sheet metal. Fenders are trimmed by lasers, and fuel tanks are polished by robots. Partly assembled motorcycles move by overhead conveyor down an assembly line to stations where employees work to secure the different parts to the frame. As you progress through the factory, the edges of your vision are festooned with flying sparks and colorful painted pieces.Herr’s, Nottingham, Pennsylvania (www.herrs.com)
. Destined for the needs of parties, picnics, and movie nights throughout the mid-
Atlantic states, thousands of potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, popcorn batches, cheese curls, and pretzels emerge from the factory of Herr’s every day. In the pretzel area, 100-yard stretches of pretzel twists, in rows of 20 across, march toward massive ovens. The raw ingredients of chips –
either corn or potatoes – tumble in by the truckload at the beginning of the production line. A conveyor belt hauls them through a series of machines that wash, slice, cook, or season them before they move away on bucket-lifts to a sorting and bagging area. Indeed, machines do most of the work – only a few people oversee production in most areas. Smart machines can even sense discolored potato chips; air jets blow these rebels off the line. The guides salt and pepper the tour with interesting facts and figures about the company, including its recycling efforts. They have fun with all this; but the best part of your guide’s job is, surely, the freedom to grab warm potato chips directly from the conveyor belt.Hope Acres, Brogue, Pennsylvania (www.thebrowncow.net)
. The best milk comes from happy cows who live comfortable lives. In the Susquehanna River Valley, Hope Acres is one of only a few robotic dairy farms in the United States; thanks to this robotic technology, its milk cows live in stress-free luxury with minimal human involvement. A tour of the barn shows their cozy conditions and the advanced technology that attends them. The cows stand or recline on thin waterbeds that cover the floor under a layer of sawdust. This forgiving surface helps to protect the cows’ joints, which (like yours) would become sore after hours of lying on a hard floor. If a cow has an itchy spot, she can saunter to an automated backscratcher – the cows have learned that this rotating stiff-bristle brush can scratch hard-to-reach places. Whenever a cow feels the discomfort of a full udder, she wanders into a room in which robots perform milking duties 24 hours a day. Laser-guided technology attaches the milkers, and the robots gently extract milk without causing the stress that human intervention can. Your guide will show you the “cow cookies” that help train the animals to seek the robots when their udders need to relieve the pressure of milk. Lastly, you visit the barn that houses new-born calves – always a treat for children.
Vermont Cheese Trail (www.vtcheese.com/cheesetrail). You could spend an entire vacation just touring the cheese-makers of Vermont. At its website, the Vermont Cheese Council publishes a map of what it calls the Vermont Cheese Trail. Here are a couple of stops along the way:On a hillside in Cabot, about 40 miles east of Burlington, Cabot Creamery (www.cabotcheese.com)
shows its visitors a typical machine-based cheese factory. In a brief but action-packed tour, you see the packaging and processing rooms, where workers fill large cooking vats with heat-treated milk and a starter culture. The curd that forms is cut with knives that help separate the curd from the whey. Once the whey is separated and drained off, workers vigorously mix the curd on huge metal finishing tables to “cheddar” it until the correct pH level is reached. In overhead towers, the curd is then pressed into 42-pound blocks. Every 90 seconds another block emerges from a tower and enters an airtight cellophane bag to age.
In Healdville, southern Vermont, Crowley Cheese (www.crowleycheese.com)
shows visitors a different way to make cheese: by hand. Established in 1882, Crowley is the oldest surviving cheese factory in the United States; except for modern sanitation and refrigeration techniques, it still uses the cheese-making tools of the 19th century. You can stand near the 1,000-gallon sterile vat as steam flows through the hollow walls to heat the milk inside it. The cheese-maker adds the culture and, later, rennet (a milk-coagulating enzyme). Whey and curd are separated. The cheese-maker uses a rake to gently stir the curd, keeping its particles separate and helping it to cook evenly. Once the whey is drained, the curds look like mounds of popcorn. The cheese-maker rinses them before placing them into cheesecloth-lined metal hoops. Overnight, old crank presses remove excess whey. Then the cheese ages: two months for the mild version and over a year for the extra sharp.Understanding, Not Just Consuming
Ours is a harried society of consumers who just want to plug it in, mix it with milk, turn the ignition, or open the box. However, valuable insights into everyday experience come from slowing down to see how products are made, what’s in them, where they come from, and how other people work and live. Children in particular remember the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes they experience on factory and other workplace tours. And because they are kids, they’re naturally curious about it all.
Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg are the authors of Watch It Made in the U.S.A., a travel book about factory tours, company museums, and other work-related attractions for families. Matt Simon helped to research and write the book’s fourth edition. www.factorytour.com.
America needs entrepreneurs, skilled workers, engineers, and business managers to keep its industries strong. By taking these tours, children may be inspired to build things or go into business themselves. They will see that we make many things in the US, and that we make them quite well.