9 great American factory tours

Story highlights

  • Some American producers are offering the public a look at their facilities
  • You can tour Jelly Belly, Ben and Jerry's or Sriracha for a taste of America
  • Or get an up-close look at sleek airplanes, motorcycles and Airstream trailers

(CNN)Depending on the metric, U.S. manufacturing is either bouncing back or going to hell in a handbasket -- albeit one expertly crafted in Brooklyn by a tattooed weaver named Holden.

What's indisputable is that some American producers are thriving -- so much so that they're willing to pull back their factory curtains, giving visitors a glimpse at the assembly line magic.
    "Everyone becomes a 5-year-old on a factory tour," says Karen Axelrod, who, with husband Bruce Brumberg, wrote "Watch it Made in the U.S.A.: A Visitor's Guide to the Best Factory Tours and Company Museums."
    "The best ones get you close to the machinery, the sparks, the excitement."
    Here are some of Axelrod's favorites, along with a couple of under-the-radar picks.

    Harley-Davidson Vehicle and Powertrain Operations Tour

    "Harley offers some of the best tours," says Axelrod. "They put you right on the floor."
    The company has two other U.S. factories, but its Kansas City plant is the only one that shows visitors a complete assembly of one of its dream machines -- in this case its Sportster, V-Rod and Dyna models.
    "Sons of Anarchy" fans will recognize the Dyna, which deserves an acting credit given how often it appears on the show.
    The $35 "Steel Toe Tour" is worth it for behind-the-scenes glimpses at tank, frame and fender manufacturing as well as painting and polishing.
    And, yes, you really do have to wear steel toe protection -- a safety vest and glasses -- making this more up-close than many factory tours.
    Reserve in advance as tours sell out.

    Harley Davidson Factory Tour, 11401 North Congress Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64153; +1 877 883 1450

    Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Tour

    This is the tour for the person who puts Sriracha on everything.
    Founded in 1980 by Vietnamese immigrant David Tran, Huy Fong Foods' take on the Southeast Asian chili sauce has become a cult foodstuff, loved for its sweet, fiery flavor and bottle with the green cap and rooster label.
    The free 45-minute walk-through takes you inside Huy Fong's 650,000-square-foot facility in Irwindale, California, past huge machines sorting red jalapenos and ending in the bottling area.
    There's a gift shop on site -- because who doesn't want Sriracha-flavored ice cream?
    Huy Fong Foods Headquarters, 4800 Azusa Canyon Road, Irwindale, California; +1 626 286 8328; Free tours run Monday-Friday.

    Fender Factory and Custom Shop Tour

    Jimi Hendrix, a Fender loyalist until his untimely death, would have dug this guided jaunt through the wood mill, metal shop and assembly rooms at the guitar giant's Corona, California, factory.
    The real fireworks occur at the final stop: the Fender Custom Shop, where you'll watch the production of one-of-a-kind masterworks and can even buy one if you're feeling inspired.

    Fender Guitar Visitor Center, 301 Cessna Cir, Corona, CA 92880; +1 951 898 4040

    Aspirational road travel starts on the Airstream factory floor.

    Airstream Factory Tour

    Fetishizing Airstreams has gotten out of hand.
    Just look at all those glossy magazine pictorials -- you know, the ones that make a summer in a travel trailer look chic and effortless?
    But there's a reason art directors love Airstream.
    The silver aluminum trailers and motor homes are beautiful, and today's models echo the original art moderne designs from the company's 1930s roots.
    On the factory tour in Jackson Center, Ohio, you can view the production process from start to finish -- i.e., shell assembly to testing and inspection.

    Airstream Factory Tour, 419 West Pike Street, Jackson Center, OH 45334-0629; +1 877 596 6111

    Jelly Belly Factory

    An hour north of San Francisco sits Jelly Belly's temple of beans, home to a factory, museum and gift shop giving away samples of its 50 flavors.
    The factory is the real draw.
    "The tour is great," says Axelrod. "It takes place above the floor, but you get to see a lot of the process."
    You'll also learn that it takes seven to 20 days to make a gourmet jellybean thanks to a seemingly endless heating and cooling cycle and a lot of churning in giant drums.
    Another highlight: the oversize mural of Ronald Reagan made of thousands of beans; they say the Gipper loved his Jelly Bellys.

    Jelly Belly Factory Tour, One Jelly Belly Lane Vacaville, Fairfield, CA 94533; +1 800 953 5592

    Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour

    Housed in the world's largest building by volume, Boeing's aviation plant 25 miles north of Seattle produces 747s, 777s and 787s, and is the only commercial jet manufacturing center open to the public.
    The giant assembly area is a marvel.
    Axelrod describes it as "very impressive in its size and the fact that it lets you see different planes at different stages of production."

    The Future of Flight Aviation Center & BoeingTour, 8415 Paine Field Blvd, Mukilteo, WA 98275; +1 800 464 1476

    Ford Rouge Center

    Henry Ford would be proud of this state-of-the-art facility located on the site of the motor company's defunct Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan.
    Today, the refurbished plant builds F-150 trucks from military grade aluminum alloy.
    The self-guided tour includes an elevated walkway, where you can view the final assembly of Ford's most popular truck, as well as an 80-foot-high observation deck and two theaters.

    Ford Rouge Factory Tour, 20900 Oakwood Blvd. Ford Factory, Dearborn, MI 48124; +1 800 835 5237

    Ben and Jerry's Factory Tour

    At Ben and Jerry's you can try new flavors at the Vermont production facility and full-service scoop shop and pay your respects to retired flavors in the outdoor flavor graveyard (RIP Vermonty Python).
    Says the expert: "The whole tour is kooky. It's a fun, happy place -- how could it not be?"
    The 30-minute guided factory tour ($4 for adults, free for kids) ends with a sample scoop of the day.
    The scoop shop has more flavor choices.

    Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory, 1281 Waterbury-Stowe Rd, Route 100, Waterbury, VT; +1 866 258 6877

    Pendleton Woolen Mills

    Oregon's Pendleton Woolen Mills has found new life as a trendy heritage brand.
    You can shop for clothes and blankets at its Washougal, Washington, store and production facility, then tour the mill, where you'll see working looms and learn everything you never knew you wanted to know about weaving.
    "I like the Pendleton tour because it emphasizes the company's history and tradition," says Axelrod.
    The company's original Pendleton, Oregon, mill, housed in an 1893 building, is also open for tours but shows less of the production process.
    Washougal Weaving Mill, 2 Pendleton Way, Washougal, Washington; +1 360 835 1118; Free tours run weekdays at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.