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Watching machines or craftsmen turn raw materials into finished products provides an adventure for the whole family. Many companies are proud to open their factory doors to the public. It's an opportunity to educate people about the company and what makes its products unique. For families, factory tours offer great entertainment. You get a behind-the-scenes look at the manufacturing process, pay little if anything for admission, and often leave the tour with free samples. See the stringing of guitars, the stuffing of teddy bears, or the mixing of ice cream. Watch colored wax become crayons, cucumbers become pickles, hunks of wood become baseball bats, or milk become cheese.

To find a comprehensive listing of tours around the country, refer to the guidebook "Watch It Made in the U.S.A." (Avon Travel; 2002) or try conducting a state-by-state search at www.howstuffworks.com/cp-archive.htm. There are hundreds of tours, and we've selected some of our favorites for you.

West Coast

Basic Brown Bear Factory

444 DeHaro Street

San Francisco, California

415-626-0781

Monday-Sunday; bears start at $12

The best thing about the Basic Brown Bear Factory is that you help make your own teddy bear. In the cutting and sewing area, workers use bear patterns to cut pieces from twenty-four layers of fuzzy fabric and then sew them together. Pick out your favorite design, pop it on a polyester stuffing machine or bean-injecting machine, and watch it fill up like a balloon. Then take your bear to the factory's "beauty parlor," where it is fluffed up and dressed in an outfit of your choice.

Boeing Tour Center

Highway 526 West

Everett, Washington

800-464-1476

Monday-Friday; adults $5, children and seniors $3

Boeing's commercial jets are manufactured in the world's largest building (by volume) -- a ninety-eight-acre airplane hangar. From an observation deck high above the assembly floor, you have a great view of the process: Ninety-foot cranes unload dinosaur-size wings, doors, fuselages, jet engines, and other mammoth airplane components. As your tour guide outlines Boeing's history of producing aircraft, you watch workers testing and assembling parts, such as wing flaps and lavatories. You may even see new planes take off on test flights.

Jelly Belly Candy Company

1 Jelly Belly Lane

Fairfield, California

800-522-3267

Monday-Sunday; free admission

It takes more than a week to make a single jelly bean, yet this factory manages to turn out one hundred thousand pounds of beans daily. To see how it's done, take the guided tour along the Jelly Bean Candy Trail, an elevated walkway over the production floor. You get a peek into the kitchen, where fifty flavors are mixed from secret recipes before molding. Watch the colorful little candies go through a "bean spa," as machines shower them with sugar, rotating drums coat them with candy shells, and giant tumbling pans polish them with confectioners' glaze. Then fix your eyes on a glorious sight: a rainbow river of finished beans gliding down a conveyor belt toward the packing area.

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker

914 Heinz Avenue

Berkeley, California

510-981-4066

Monday-Sunday; free admission

If your chocolate is stamped "70 percent cacao," you've just unwrapped a serious candy bar, perhaps one made at Scharffen Berger. Here, age-old European methods and vintage equipment produce a first-rate American chocolate. The company roasts and crushes good-quality cocoa beans, combining different types for complex flavor combinations. In the melangeur, or mixer, spinning granite rollers grind the beans into a shiny molten liquid. This "liquor" goes into the conche machine, which refines and mixes it with sugar and cocoa butter. Finally, the tempering machine pumps dark liquid chocolate into bar molds.

Seguin Moreau, barrel maker

151 Camino Dorado

Napa, California

707-252-3408

Monday-Friday; free admission

The flavor of fine wine has as much to do with a high-quality oak barrel as with high-quality grapes. This division of France's most prestigious cooperage builds its casks from American oak. In the workroom, master coopers fit oak strips, called staves, along the insides of metal rings. Then they bend the staves using heat and water to coax them into shape. To bring out the wood's oaky-vanilla aromas, the coopers slowly toast the barrels over oak fires.

Southwest

Ethel M Chocolates

2 Cactus Garden Drive

Henderson, Nevada

702-433-2500

Monday-Sunday; free admission

Located seven miles from the Las Vegas Strip, Ethel M Chocolates offers a refreshing break from the slot machines. There is always an assortment of sweets -- dark-chocolate coins, fudge bundles, strawberry truffles, peanut clusters -- cooking inside. You can catch the confectioners whipping up candy centers with butter, fresh eggs, and natural flavorings, or pouring out hot batches of pecan brittle onto cooling tables. In another room, naked bits of lemon satin and butter rum emerge onto an enrobing line, where a machine coats them with chocolate -- either milk or dark. At the end of the tour, you can select a free chocolate, and savor it in the shade of ocotillo and mesquite trees in the cactus garden.

Heart of the Desert

Eagle Ranch

7288 Highway 54/70

Alamogordo, New Mexico

800-432-0999

Monday-Friday; free admission

In the 1970s, George and Marianne Schweers were among the first farmers to plant pistachios in New Mexico's Tularosa Basin, which has a climate similar to long-established pistachio-growing regions in the Middle East. Their farm is now the largest in the state. Visit during the September harvest season, when machines shake the pistachio trees, causing a shower of nuts to fall. In the processing plant, the pistachios are both machine and hand sorted. Before roasting, some are sprayed with a mist of salt water, others are dusted with red- or green-chili powder.

Midwest

Cedar Grove Cheese

E5904 Mill Road

Plain, Wisconsin

800-200-6020

Monday-Saturday; $2 admission

Cedar Grove is one of the few small cheese factories that remains in this part of Wisconsin's farm country. All of its products are made by hand with the same techniques used when the factory opened in 1947. As you nibble on free samples, a guide shows you how one hundred thousand pounds of milk per day are converted into ten thousand pounds of cheese: Cheesemakers start by mixing starter culture into ninety-degree vats of milk; the culture flavors and thickens the milk. As the mixture coagulates, wire knives are drawn back and forth through it. In about an hour, the vat is brimming with tiny cheese curds, but many steps still remain. You can watch as the whey is drained and the cheese is salted, compressed, and packaged.

Robinson Ransbottom Pottery

5545 Third Street

Roseville, Ohio

740-697-7355

Monday-Friday; free admission

Robinson Ransbottom produces ceramics from clay that is dug within a ten-mile radius of the factory. Step inside the century-old workshop and see tunnel kilns, where thousands of crocks and birdbaths are fired at 2,400 degrees. On the self-guided tour, you can watch workers stamping out bowls on die-presses, unloading the vessels from the kilns, and hand-decorating them with colorful glazes. Before visiting the Pot Shop, take a look at the three-acre warehouse filled with housewares and garden pottery.

Sechler's Fine Pickles

5686 State Route 1

Saint Joe, Indiana

800-332-5461

Monday-Friday, April-October only; free admission

In the early 1930s, Anne and Ralph Sechler cured and packed pickles in their farmhouse kitchen. The family-run business now operates in a sixty-thousand-square-foot plant. In the growing season, cucumbers arrive daily from independent farms, are sorted according to size, and then are immersed in vats of salty brine. They are cured for about three months before being processed into spears or slices (or left whole), and packed in jars. The jars are then filled with pickle juice and capped.

Velvet Ice Cream

11324 Mount Vernon Road

Utica, Ohio

740-892-3921

Monday-Friday, May-October only; free admission

This eighty-nine-year-old creamery is located in Licking County, which makes sense because on a summer day it's packed with children licking ice-cream cones. The Dager family converted a nineteenth-century gristmill into a museum, where visitors learn about the labor-intensive process of hand-cranking that originally produced Velvet Ice Cream. In the modern factory next door, you see just how different ice-cream making has become. A network of steel pipes delivers gallons of ingredients to chilled mixing machines, where you can see workers add chocolate brownies, strawberries, and other treats before the ice cream is pumped into cartons.

South

Louisville Slugger Baseball Bats

  • Louisville Slugger Museum
  • 800 West Main Street
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • 502-588-7228
  • www.sluggermuseum.org
  • December-February, Monday-Friday; March-November, Monday-Saturday; adults $6, children $3.50

It looks like a house that Babe Ruth might have built. You enter beneath a 120-foot-tall replica of the Babe's bat and find exhibits about him and other legendary baseball players. On the tour, you can pretend you're a major-league player. Walk through a locker room and emerge onto a playing field to the sound of a crowd cheering; stand beside life-size figures of noted home-run hitters. In the factory, you see automated blades carve rotating cylinders of maple and white ash into bats. Then watch a branding machine sear them with trademarks and players' autographs.

McIlhenny Company Tabasco Pepper Sauce

Avery Island, Louisiana

800-634-9599

Monday-Sunday; factory tour free; garden $6

In addition to the pepper-sauce-making tour, you can visit the 250-acre garden, where a colony of twenty thousand snowy egrets sits amid oaks and crape myrtles.

Northeast

Cape Cod Potato Chips

100 Breed's Hill Road

Hyannis, Massachusetts

888-881-2447

Monday-Friday; free admission

This factory processes twenty-eight-million pounds of potatoes a year. You can peer through glass windows to view machines that wash, peel, and slice the spuds before they're fed into kettles of oil -- where they're slowly fried in small batches. During the next forty minutes, workers stir the potatoes to make sure they cook evenly and don't clump. Then the golden-brown chips are transferred to a centrifuge, which spins out any excess oil. After being salted and flavored, the chips are hand-packed into bags.

The Crayola Factory

Two Rivers Landing

30 Centre Square

Easton, Pennsylvania

610-515-8000

Tuesday-Sunday; $9 admission

Before children colored with crayons, the Binney & Smith Company manufactured black ones only for industrial use. In 1903, they added color to wax and invented the first child-friendly kind. Your family can watch colored wax disappear into holes and reappear as crayons. Then visit the creative studio to make colorful projects. From here, it's a short trip to the Martin Guitars factory, and only a two-hour drive to Pennsylvania's York County, home to over a dozen factory tours, including Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Snyder's of Hanover pretzels.

Martin Guitars

510 Sycamore Street

Nazareth, Pennsylvania

800-345-3103

Monday-Friday; free admission

C.F. Martin & Company is a leading maker of flat-top steel-string acoustic guitars; its history spans three centuries and six generations. Five hundred craftspeople employ venerable processes, using only a few machines, to cut, shape, and assemble the necks and bodies. It takes up to six months to make a Martin Guitar -- one that might end up in the hands of Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, or you.

Simon Pearce Glass

The Mill

Quechee, Vermont

802-295-2711

Monday-Sunday; free admission

Simon Pearce has expanded his operations to include pottery and other crafts, and he now has three other workshops you can visit in Maryland, Vermont, and Pennsylvania (check the website for locations). In Quechee, a restaurant overlooks a covered bridge; you can enjoy gourmet food on lovely pottery and sip beverages from beautiful glasses -- all Simon Pearce, of course.

Steinway & Sons

1 Steinway Place

Long Island City, New York

718-721-2600

Alternating Thursdays; free admission

You know you've arrived when the aroma of carved wood embraces you. Outside is a vast lumberyard, with piles of wood, ready to be sawed, shaped, chiseled, and sanded into rims, braces, legs, soundboards, and other pieces that make up a twelve-thousand-part piano.

Comments (2)

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January 5, 2019
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Anonymous
April 29, 2015
How about some tours in the Southeast? South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina all have centuries of manufacturing history. We still make so many things in America! I think it's time for a piece on the resurgence of manufacturing in the Southeast - we're making our own fabrics here in South Carolina, and several other designers are too.