The Way it Was: Remembering many factory tours

by JOHN STRAKA | CORRESPONDENT Published:

Do manufacturers still offer tours to visitors? A long time ago, a factory tour was often the best part of a family driving vacation. Over a period of many years, my wife, daughter and I had the opportunity to see how things were made, often standing right next to a worker or a machine.

We were just a few feet from the workers at Fenton Glass in Williamstown, W.Va. We saw workers blow a glass pitcher in a mold and remove it. While one man held it in place, another man brought a limp, hot, glass rod and placed it to make a handle for the pitcher. The two men worked together like artists or ballet dancers, with a high degree of precision.

I am sure the temperature of the glass would have had to be just right and the timing perfect to make the handle fuse itself onto the pitcher.

Another worker was taking finished green glass vases and grasping them, one at a time, on the bottom, with a special tool. He reheated the top parts and swung them back and forth, letting gravity and centrifugal force elongate the neck with a decorative rim.

Every vase was different from any other. Those that did not come out perfect were sold in the souvenir shop at a discount. I have one on the nightstand next to my bed.

In Richmond, Va., we toured the Liggett and Myers factory, where theymade L&M cigarettes. A large roll of narrow cigarette paper was fed into a machine and filled with tobacco. It was rolled into what would have been a mile long cigarette, except it was cut into the length of single cigarettes.

THE MACHINE also put the finished cigarettes into packages. Our guide showed us how, if a pack had even one cigarette that was either not fully packed or missing, the machine would kick it out at the end of the process.

In Milwaukee, we visited Schlitzerland, where they made Schlitz beer. A couple of their large, stainless steel tanks were installed in the building before the walls were put up.

We also toured Busch Gardens, Florida where they made Anheuser Busch beer. In Italy we saw a "cameo factory," which was actually an old jewelry store with an empty, one-person workbench.

In Everett, Wash., we were on a balcony above the Boeing factory floor, looking through glass windows, as the workers below assembled giant 747 planes.

They started each plane with a rectangular box made of girders. The cabin was then attached to one side of the box, wings to two other sides, the cockpit to the front and landing gear to the bottom. Outdoors, a line of 747s stood, waiting for all the work on the inside of the aircraft to be done.

Our guide pointed out one of those aircraft as being very special and informed us that he was not allowed to tell to whom it would be delivered. I guess we all knew it was going to be the new Air Force One, for the President of the United States.

In Plymouth, Mass., we visited Cranberry World, toured their museum and saw a cranberry bog. We learned that if a cranberry, dropped from above, did not bounce over a little fence, it would be discarded as being rotted or dried out.

I wonder how many readers know cranberries grow on low plants, a lot like strawberries?

IN SOUTH Dakota, we visited the Homestake Gold Mine. I was impressed with the giant machine that wound and unwound a heavy steel cable that raised and lowered workers to where the mining was being done far below the surface. I have a souvenir core sample of gold ore from the mine. No, you can't see gold flakes or nuggets in it.

Park Seed in South Carolina was interesting because I had been ordering seeds from them and always wondered how they counted 20 or 30 tiny, itsy-bitsy seeds.

A row of women sat at a long table facing a wall, using little scoops made of tubing with handles. They just dipped the appropriate scoop into a bag of seeds and it would hold exactly the correct number of that particular kind of seed.

Corning Glass in Corning, N.Y., had cast a giant glass blank that would be ground and silvered. It was to form, what at that time, would be the largest reflector telescope in the world. The first attempt failed and could not be used.

We saw it on display. I think it was about 200 inches in diameter and maybe a foot thick. (I'm not sure of those dimensions.) A second attempt was a success and may be in a telescope somewhere even now, many years later.

We saw the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C. No, they did not give samples.

It took three tries to tour the Hershey chocolate factory. Once we arrived too late in the day and another time they were closed for vacation or something. The whole town smelled like chocolate.

To watch how Kellogg corn flakes are made, we had to wear paper hats. That was fun.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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