Factory tours have been part of the American business landscape for more than a century, with the H.J. Heinz Company among the first to offer them. Though the ketchup-maker, like many other manufacturers, has since dropped tours because of safety concerns, plenty of companies still roll out the red carpet for the public, inviting them to witness production facilities in action. These seven entertaining and informative factory tours also serve as a reminder that, for all the imported goods in our lives these days, "Made in the USA" still counts.
1. Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, York, Pennsylvania
Passionate H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) members flock to York (along with plenty of folks who prefer driving cars) to see Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations, one of several plants where the firm — founded in 1903 — makes hundreds of motorcycles each day. After an introductory video and a chance to sit atop current models, visitors get a factory-floor peek at fabrication areas and the assembly line, which includes a quality-control test where each finished vehicle is started and ridden on rollers.
2. Jelly Belly Candy, Fairfield, California
You won't meet Willy Wonka at this plant, where literally tons of candy are cooked and formed each year. But peering through glass panels at the factory floor, tour participants see machines cranking out the firm's famous jelly beans, and (the best part) taste beans at each stage of production. Depending on what's being made on a given day, the whole factory smells like cantaloupe, chili-mango, buttered popcorn, cherry or one of about 100 other sugary bean flavors.
3. Louisville Slugger Baseball Bats, Louisville, Kentucky
The Hillerich & Bradsby Co. has been making Louisville Slugger baseball bats since the 1880s. The firm's museum is packed with fascinating memorabilia, including audio clips of famous baseball moments and the actual bats swung by baseball greats such as Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. A woody aroma fills the factory as workers at lathes use metal templates to fashion bats from short, thick lengths of maple and white ash, with monitors showing close-ups of the work being performed.
4. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Waterbury, Vermont
Tours at this plant begin at the Cow Over the Moon Theater with a "moo-vie" about the history of the company. Participants then head to a glassed-in mezzanine, where they hear a cow-to-cone description of ice cream manufacturing as they watch the production room below. Afterward, it's on to the Flavoroom for a sampling of the tasty goods. Before leaving, true Ben & Jerry's aficionados pay their respects at the Flavor Graveyard, a small hillside plot dotted with headstones bearing the names of discontinued flavors such as Holy Cannoli and Makin' Whoopie Pie.
5. Gibson Guitars, Memphis, Tennessee
Though Gibson has been around more than a century, it was in 1935 that the firm began making the electric guitars used by everyone from Chet Atkins and B.B. King to legions of amateur musicians. At the Gibson Beale Street Showcase, tour participants walk through the factory floor and watch as highly skilled luthiers at various stations go about the multiple steps to make a guitar almost entirely by hand, including binding the body, fitting the neck, painting, buffing, stringing and tuning.
6. Boeing Aircraft, Mukilteo, Washington
In the world's largest building by volume (472,000,000 cubic feet), North America's only commercial jet assembly plant tour allows participants to witness Boeing 747, 767, 777 and the behemoth 787 Dreamliner production lines, where workers methodically construct powerful aircraft that are sold around the world. In the adjacent Future of Flight Aviation Center, visitors can design and test their own jet, or strap into the Innovator to virtually experience a barnstorming stunt plane, a Grand Prix race or the Battle of Iwo Jima.
7. Tabasco Pepper Sauce, Avery Island, Louisiana
The pungent aroma of hot pepper sauce greets visitors to the bayou island where Tabasco has been made since the 1860s by the family-owned McIlhenny Company. There's less action to see on this tour because most of the production takes place out of sight, in the white oak barrels where the pepper mixture ages. But the bottling and packaging operations are fun to observe, the island is beautiful, and the store is filled with every Tabasco product imaginable, so you can sample such strange concoctions as raspberry-chipotle ice cream.