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Factory Girl

Greetings from York County, Pa., the factory tour capital of the world

Michelle Gienow
York County's Perrydell Farms, where Visitors can watch the cows being milked (right) and then give it a go themselves on Buttercup, the Perrydell practice cow (above left).

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My mental images of the greater York metropolitan region have always been sort of dull and diffuse--generic just-off-I-83 bedroom communities, discount liquor stores, and acre after acre of Amish-made-shed dealerships. But as it turns out, there is far, far more: Who knew York County's secret pride, that it is actually and officially the factory tour capital of the world?

That title is self-imposed, but it's hard to imagine any other county in any other state seriously vying for it--York County has organized 14 different local manufacturers to open their doors to the public on an ongoing basis, while four more join in once a year during the Made in America Event in June. The tour weekend comes complete with getaway packages at local hotels, so if your idea of a romantic vacation includes donning goggles and hair nets and watching pretzels being made, be sure to clear your calendar for June 17 through 20 this year. Start your trip planning at factorytours.org and be sure to request the exhaustively detailed brochure. All but one of the tours are free and that one only charges $3, so this is a truly cheap trip. If you visit during the official tour weekend, special activities include a scorecard listing all the factories; anyone visiting three or more, getting their factory tour passport stamped at each stop, can turn it in for fabulous York County prizes--such as free pretzels.

Yes, pretzels are big in York County: four of the 14 participating factories--Utz, Snyder's of Hanover, Revonah Pretzels, and Herr's Foods--make 'em. At Utz, Herr's, and Snyder's, you will also get to watch potato chips, cheese puffs, and sundry other snack foods being made. Meanwhile, for those who want to ensure complete segregation in their snack foods' manufacture, Revonah makes pretzels, and only pretzels, completely by hand, while the Martin's Potato Chips factory, as the name suggests, only does potato chips.

All the snack-food tours are free and offer free samples, which is key because after 45 minutes being suffused in the yeasty scent of fresh-baked pretzels or the heady aroma of potato chips simmering in lard, if the tour guide didn't give some up there could well be a tour group rampage onto the factory floor for some snack food self-service.

Unless you're some sort of hard-core snack-food freak, choosing any one of these tours should do; the way pretzels/chips/puffs are made does not vary widely between manufacturers. Four of the five snack factories are all within a few miles of each other, so pulling a pretzel-factory trifecta would be no problem. Interestingly, with the exception of Herr's Foods, all the snack food manufacturers are clustered in or near the town of Hanover, which suggests that Hanover ought to consider defecting and creating its own Snack Factory Capital of the World title. Most of the remaining factory tours lie 30 miles away in and around the city of York.

Of the food factory tours, my favorite is Snyder's, and not just because it's the largest. Snyder's of Hanover is an irresistible combination of high-tech machinery and old-fashioned bakery, where grandmotherly ladies wrangle fresh-baked pretzels out of the ovens and across a complex network of conveyor belts, where the pretzels cool off before they cascade down these totally cool double-helix chutes into the packaging machinery. There are all sorts of wonderfully interconnected, constantly moving conveyors and mini-elevators, shuttling and sometimes shaking products from cooking to seasoning--tours are not allowed, for any reason, into the room where they put the cheese on the cheese puffs, not even if you beg--up, down, and eventually around to the actual bagging, boxing and packing, and loading onto trucks by the pallet-full of the finished products. The approximately 30-45 minute tour does include some less than thrilling stops--here's the plant engineer's office!--but mostly you're on a catwalk above the factory floor lulled into subdued awe by the nonstop workings of the Rube Goldbergesque snack-factory contraptions and their hair-netted operators. If you are going to take this tour, I demand that you download "Powerhouse," a 1937 instrumental musical composition by Raymond Scott and instantly recognizable as the iconic "assembly line" music in cartoons throughout the ages, from 1940 Warner Brothers 'toons through Ren and Stimpy and The Simpsons, and listen to it on earphones instead of the earnest but invariably boring tour-guide spiel.

The tour ends at Snyder's outlet store, and I guarantee that after watching its wares being made right before your eyes and, even more to the point, highly stimulated nose, you will be extremely eager to shop. It's a lot of fun to peruse the store, and not only for the free samples and huge bargains on factory-second snacks: There are all sorts of obscure Snyder's products not usually encountered, at least in Baltimore area supermarkets, like their truly addictive pumpernickel and onion pretzels.

For those who like their junk food sweet, there are two chocolate factory tours--well, sort of, anyway. For decades Hershey's Chocolate World was an actual tour of the Hershey's Chocolate factory, but it's now a "virtual" tour with pumped-in chocolate odor. You do still get free chocolate samples, passed out by perky local teenagers wearing life-size chocolate bar costumes, though I would skip this one unless you're already planning a visit the Hershey amusement park.

Much better is York's Wolfgang Candy factory, where you can witness just how the company utilizes nearly two million pounds of chocolate each year. The free 45-minute tour wends its way through the factory floor, where hair- (and beard-) net-wearing visitors can see-- and, oh my god, smell--unbelievable amounts of chocolate being cooked, mixed, and drizzled. Wow. Mercifully they give you three free samples of whichever chocolate product is being made that day, which helps blunt the ravenous tour-engendered chocolate lust before you're turned loose in the Wolfgang candy store.

Like the Hershey "virtual" factory, some of the other York County tours are a little weak in the bona-fides. It's a bit of a stretch to call a wagon ride through Naylor Wine Cellars' vineyard a genuine factory tour, though the wine tasting afterward is the kind of free sample I can really get behind (naylorwine.com).

Slightly closer to an actual manufacturing tour is Bube's Brewery, the only intact pre-Prohibition era brewery complex left in the United States, though there's not much to see and rather a lot of blather about the history of brewing before you get to the free-beer part (bubesbrewery.com). The one other beverage "factory" tour in York county, at Perrydell Farm Dairy (perrydellfarm.com), offers a genuine manufacturing demonstration. On this self-guided tour you can see cows being milked and then the milk being put in bottles by a multi-nozzled machine that appears to eerily reverse the initial cow-milking process. You can even feed and pet the baby cows before rewarding yourself with some of Perrydell's homemade ice cream or stupendous chocolate milk.

Beyond ice cream and cute farm animals, however, York County does offer plenty of actual, hard-core factory tours of genuine, hard-core factories. By far the most popular is the Harley-Davidson factory tour, where you can, according to the company's web site (harley-davidson.com), "witness passion forged in steel," or at least view middle-aged guys in Harley shirts and thinning ponytails welding motorcycle parts together. This is Harley-Davidson's largest assembly plant, with 1.5 million square feet under one roof, and visitors get to tour the actual factory floor. It's sort of cool to realize that, judging by the number of Harleys in the parking lot, many of the workers here are building the bikes they love, though they look like they might beat up anyone nelly enough to express such a sentiment.

Four of the most hard-core tours are offered only during the Made in America Event weekend and it's easy to understand why--these are actual working production facilities lacking formal visitor amenities. Aficionados of the Discovery Channel deep-geek series How It's Made will be ecstatic. Weldon Solutions (weldonsolutions.com) manufactures industrial robots and other hi-tech automated tools--you'll want to break out that Raymond Scott music again here. Keep it on hand for Sieling and Jones (sielingandjones.com), maker of custom architectural plywood and home of many big loud sawing machines. Those of a more artistic bent might prefer Graphik Masters (graphikmasters.com), where you can watch more computerized machines at work, or York Wallcoverings (yorkwall.com), where century-old printing presses produce wall paper for designers like Laura Ashley and Tommy Bahama.

No matter which factories you decided to visit, be sure to call ahead or check the company web site for factory tour days, times, and specific requirements. Some places have age restrictions, others have special demands like closed toe shoes. However, if protective gear such as hair nets or goggles is required, the factory will supply those to visitors. So go, have fun, and don't hog the free samples.

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