How do they make that?
If that’s a question you often ponder, Kentucky is a great place to find the answer. Everything from appliances, bats, and candy on down to X-ray machines, yarn, and zesty sauce is produced right here in the Commonwealth.
Many Kentucky manufacturers invite you to come and visit, to watch their products being made and see firsthand the proud workmanship of skilled Kentuckians. Factory tours are some of the best tourist attractions around: fun, educational, and usually free.
Here are four we visited that will fascinate travelers of all ages, from the coveted Corvette to earthy Bybee pottery, or the world-famous Louisville Slugger bat and the Ale-8-One secret-ingredient soft drink. And there are lots more places to tour listed in the sidebar below.
Corvette Assembly Plant—Bowling Green
There’s a parking lot in Bowling Green with three different sections, marked Buses, Cars, and Corvettes. That’s just the first hint of the pride this city takes in its remarkable product, a symbol of the American dream.
Every Corvette model since the 1982 model has been built here, in GM’s Bowling Green Assembly Plant, a factory as big as 22 football fields put together. Tour guides explain how the Corvette’s frame and drive train are assembled in one area, while the luxurious cockpit is built separately. It’s odd seeing the car’s unmistakable profile float by in bits and pieces, as fiberglass body panels travel on overhead conveyors to the assembly line. Even the parts look as sleek as sculptures.
Some welding is done by robots, but assembly is the work of highly skilled humans. In a single 8-hour shift, the plant’s 1,000 employees build approximately 144 cars. It’s clearly no ordinary job. Finished cars are driven into the computer testing booth in a flourish of racing engines and squealing tires.
On the assembly line, the bodies inch along—probably the slowest these ’Vettes will ever travel—while seats, wheels, and doors are installed, accessories added and tested. As you watch, you can’t help shopping for your own favorite. Of the 10 available colors, the most popular is red. Finally, body and drive train come together in a complex operation called “body marriage.”
And at the end of the line, the engine is started for the first time. On each tour, one lucky visitor can sit down at the wheel, turn the key, and hear the first roar of a newborn Corvette. I can tell you: it’s a feeling like nothing in this world!
DOWN TO EARTH
For a total contrast, travel back in time down a country road in Madison County to one of the oldest factories anywhere. In fact, no one knows just how long Bybee Pottery has been turning out handmade bowls, mugs, and other kitchenware: company sales records date from only 1845, but people claim it’s been there since 1809.
Is this the oldest business in the Commonwealth? “We don’t argue these things with people,” owner Walter Cornelison says as his hands shape a spinning lump of clay into a graceful vase. “We’ve been here a long time.” Six generations of his family have operated the business, and he himself has been throwing pots “close to 57 years.”
The oldest part of the building is nearly 200 years old, but it’s hardly a museum.
Every inch is splashed and coated in gold-brown clay dug from the Kentucky earth just three miles away. As you wander through the cramped workrooms, employees explain how they produce everything from dinner plates to piggy banks in the distinctive Bybee blues, pinks, and purples.
Some items are thrown by hand, others formed with a jig, and still others made by pouring liquid clay into a mold. After drying, everything is dipped into big, mysterious tubs of glaze (the muddy gray turns dark green when fired, and sickly pink somehow becomes rich burgundy). The pots are heated in the kiln for 16 hours at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, then cooled for a day.
Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the kiln is opened, and salesroom shelves are stocked with new pottery—then stripped bare within minutes by customers who treasure the unique stoneware with “BB” engraved on the bottom.
Louisville Slugger Museum
CRACK! The sweet collision of ball and bat is the very first sound you hear at the Louisville Slugger Museum. Even before you’ve bought your ticket, you can try out Babe Ruth’s bat, or Ty Cobb’s. Enter the museum through a life-sized baseball diamond, watch a film of great hits in history, and then, with your guide, step into the factory itself.
You’re walking in the footsteps of the greats. Hillerich and Bradsby, the maker of Louisville Sluggers, supplies up to 70% of major leaguers, producing around 120 bats for each player every year. Ted Williams, Pee Wee Reese, Tony Gwynn, and scores of others have come here to choose their bats and watch them being made.
Of course, the scene inside the factory was a little different back then, when master craftsmen toiled with chisels and calipers. Now, huge automatic lathes turn a cylinder of northern white ash or maple into a sleek, perfect bat in 30 seconds flat.
But the romance is still there. Our guide says they’re making bats today for Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter.
Rough from the lathe, the bats get the Louisville Slugger logo burned in, along with players’ autographs. More than 8,500 brands for signatures are stored in the “autograph bin,” a veritable mini-museum of the game. The bats are sanded and then finished, in everything from clear varnish to a new stack of shiny red and black bats. I’ll be watching for those bats on TV next season.
A COLD ONE
In the Ale-8-One Bottling Plant, tour guide DeAnne VonGruenigen holds up a mysterious flask full of yellowish liquid. “This,” she tells the wide-eyed school class, “is the secret ingredient. Know what’s in it?”
“No!” they yell.
“Well, neither do I!” she beams. The flavor formula for Kentucky’s beloved soft drink, produced here in Winchester since 1926, is known only to two people in the world: company president Frank A. Rogers III and his son, who whip up a fresh batch every six weeks in this tiny locked lab.
From there, we follow DeAnne into the gleaming factory, fragrant with soap and ginger. Ale-8-One is still sold in returnable bottles, and the empties are lifted from their cases and sent through three washings in a huge machine. Then they march in line into the filler, where a spinning carousel with 72 nozzles can fill 500 bottles a minute.
Full bottles are capped and packed into the distinctive yellow cartons, then loaded onto a fleet of 18 trucks that will carry them to thirsty people across the state, and then other distributors carry them beyond state boundaries. Homesick Kentuckians in exile needn’t worry—Ale-8-One ships out carefully packed, nonreturnable bottles by UPS. Orders have traveled as far as U.S. military camps in Iraq.
The tour ends in a gift shop stocked with Ale-8-One tote bags, ball caps, and even baby bottles. Then take a seat in the lounge filled with Ale-8 memorabilia, pick up a bright yellow cup, and enjoy a real taste of Kentucky. Ahh!
SEE FOR YOURSELF
If you’d like to tour the places detailed in this feature, here’s the information you need. All tours are free unless otherwise indicated. We recommend calling ahead to confirm times.
25 Carol Road
Tours Friday 10:50 a.m.
Reservations required: (859) 744-3484
610 Waco Loop
Monday-Friday, tours 8 a.m.-12 noon and 12:30-3 p.m.
Corvette Assembly Plant
Louisville Road and Corvette Dr.
Tours beginning April 22, Monday-Friday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Louisville Slugger Museum
800 W. Main Street
Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., plus Sunday 12 noon-5 p.m. April through November.
Tour fees: $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 children ages 6-12, under age 6 free
MORE FACTORY TOURS
American Printing House for the Blind
1839 Frankfort Ave.
Learn how Braille and talking books are made.
Tours Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
100 Churchill Court
Watch hand-weavers at work on wooden looms.
Tours Monday-Thursday 9 a.m.-12 noon and 12:30-4 p.m.
731 Brent St. (also marked Stoneware Street)
Skilled artisans paint pottery by hand.
Tours Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., $5 fee
Maker’s Mark Distillery
3350 Burk Spring Rd.
See bourbon produced in a historic still house.
Tours Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Ruth Hunt Candy
550 Maysville Rd.
More than 70 kinds of candy and yummy free samples.
Tours Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky
1001 Cherry Blossom Way
Take a tram tour of this ultra-modern plant.
Tours Monday-Friday at 10 a.m., 12 noon, and 2 p.m.
For reservations call (800) 866-4485