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Feature

Factory Tours

From Collin Street Bakery’s fruitcakes to Nokona’s baseball gloves, Texans love to see how things are made

Factory tours in Texas are of an intriguing variety, whether it’s watching the federal government print money, smelling fruitcake as it comes out of the oven, learning how coffee is roasted or observing someone assemble a baseball glove, stitch by stitch.

And if some tours are high-tech, with exhibits, videos and interactive displays, others are as straightforward as the employees at the Nokona baseball glove factory (in the North Texas town of Nocona) operating sewing machines and pausing to answer a visitor’s question.

But those details are not necessarily what matter.

What matters is what every factory tour has in common, regardless of what that factory makes or how sophisticated the tour: People want to know how things are made. This is particularly important in the 21st century, when so many are far removed from the manufacturing process. Most answers can be found with a mere thumb twiddle on a smartphone. But what draws us to a factory tour is the wonder of experiencing the process firsthand.

“There’s a much stronger emotional effect than you’d think,” says Daniel Howard, a professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. “We’re creatures who put a lot of store in emotions and memories, things like sense and smell. That’s a direct line to our brain. And it’s not something you’re going to get with an online tour.”

Howard’s explanation may sound academic, and he uses words like “cognitive” and “evaluative,” but his enthusiasm for the subject is not only academic. It’s an enthusiasm that tourgoers share. It’s the pleasure they get from seeing how ingredients or components transform into the product we buy or use. “It is a big deal,” says Howard. “And it has a very strong impact on consumers. The factory tour delivers an experience a consumer can’t get any other way.”

At Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana and Day Break Coffee Roasters in Lubbock, aroma is a primary feature of each tour. At Collin Street Bakery, visitors smell fruitcakes in the oven during the busy holiday season. Everyone who passes through can see the production area, including where the cake batter is mixed and where the hand decorators work. Day Break isn’t quite as big or complicated as Collin Street, but the impact is just as sensuous in the presence of green coffee beans, roasters and the rich, nutty aroma of beans ready to be ground and brewed.

At the U.S. Treasury’s printing plant in Fort Worth (where the gift shop is called The Money Factory), visitors traverse an enclosed walkway that’s suspended over the production floor so they can watch currency being printed. In this case, it’s not so much about the money as it is about the spectacle—the thunder of the presses and the seemingly endless stream of untrimmed paper currency whirring continuously through the machines.

At Nokona, visitors sign the guest book and walk into the lobby. The first sensation is the aroma of leather, which, for most, triggers a series of memories and expectations. After just a few minutes in the factory, it’s easy to understand why a softball player from Vermont asked to visit the plant for her 16th birthday. She wanted to get a sense of how the glove she wore for the game she loved was made, says Rob Storey, the executive vice president whose great-grandfather started the company that would become Nokona in the 1920s. While trying to trademark the name Nocona, the company was told the name of a city could not be trademarked. So the brand became Nokona.

“There’s nothing high-tech about what we do here,” Storey says. “It goes back to the senses, and the need to see how something is actually made. The most common thing people tell us? That they had no idea anyone still did it like this.”

Or, as Carla Yeargin, who leads some of the Nokona tours, says: “They’re usually shocked that the gloves are hand-sewn, that so many people actually touch the glove during the manufacturing process.”

What are the other things people learn during the tour?

Handmade really is handmade. The only machine used is one that embroiders the company logo on the glove. It’s not much of an assembly line: only six gloves at a time. Otherwise, it’s a couple dozen people, a dozen or so industrial sewing machines, hand tools and lots of human power. In fact, the process is little different than it was when glove making started 80 years ago.

A stick—thicker, heavier and longer than a drumstick—is used to turn the glove’s fingers right-side out. That’s because the gloves are stitched together, and the fingers added, with the inside on the outside. Martin Gomez slides this stick into the fingers, one at a time, and forces the glove around the finger so that the finger ends up inside the mitt. This combination of leverage and strength is fascinating to watch.

The leather is cut into the shape of a mitt using metal dies, some of which are decades old. There isn’t a die for left-handed gloves—the cutter just reverses the leather.

Gloves are made of cow, buffalo and kangaroo hide. The hides are first sent to a tannery and then shipped to Nokona. And gloves can be more than just the conventional brown leather color. Nokona also makes pink and yellow ones.

The laces are threaded through the glove and webbing by hand and then knotted. And don’t worry if it seems like a knot doesn’t seem cinched enough. Yeargin says that once the knot is tied, it rarely comes undone.

If a glove is ever damaged, Dea Thomas will repair it. She works with hundreds of mitts a year, sometimes providing a thorough cleaning or fixing damaged leather. Microwave burning is common, as some people believe they can break in a glove by microwaving it. Thomas says it’s not unusual to find old sunflower seeds, or even rings and other personal possessions, stuck inside gloves sent in for repair.

Quality control is more than a marketing slogan. Each glove is inspected thoroughly. If anything is out of place, even one stitch in the lacing, it goes back to be fixed—even if the glove has to be taken apart and put together again.

My favorite part of the tour? The last part. That’s when Brandy Claxton uses an air-powered rubber ball hammer to pound the new glove into shape. The hammer goes up and down, and Claxton slides the glove in and out, up and down, so the hammer strikes it in the right place. Claxton is so nimble with the glove and the hammer that she answers the question everyone asks without missing a slide. No, she doesn’t get her fingers smashed, although anyone watching finds that hard to believe.

“I have never seen anything like that, or even seen a glove made,” says Robert Combs of Arlington, 15, taking the tour with his mother, father and sister. “Of course that was my favorite part, the way she pounded the glove. That was cool.”

Which is a fitting description of most factory tours—“cool” in a way that we don’t see any more, or at least we don’t see often enough.

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See more about food and wine writer Jeff Siegel at winecurmudgeon.com.