What happened to the factories in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Sarah Alvarez Jan 17, 2012

What happened to the factories in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Sarah Alvarez Jan 17, 2012

Kai Ryssdal:  Among the few indisputable economic truths about 21st century America is this one: Manufacturing in this country just isn’t what it used to be. Millions of jobs have disappeared, thousands of factories, as well. Even so — with everything that’s disappeared — a lot of us still know what those factories looked like. Thanks to the late, great Mr. Fred Rogers.

Sarah Alvarez reports.

Sarah Alvarez: When I was a kid I was fascinated with Mr. Rogers’ factory tours. I loved watching how things were made, like trumpets and shoes and flashlights.

Mr. Rogers: I’d like to show you some people making crayons. Come along, I have a film of it here.

These places were full of metal equipment and conveyer belts lit by florescent lights. They were also full of people. I wanted to know how the factories in some those videos are doing now.

In 1998, Mr. Rogers visited Hedstrom Entertainment in Ashland, Ohio, to find out how people make a basic plastic ball. When he was there the factory was bustling. But as Mr. Rogers would ask:

Mr. Rogers: What’s happening now?

Jim Braeunig: Well, you know, we moved our factory to China in 2004 out of just sheer need.

That’s Jim Braeunig. He runs Hedstrom Entertainment.

Braeunig: Wages and things had gotten to the point — and benefits — that really made it impossible to compete with the Chinese product.

Braeunig says he did what he could for years to keep his factory in the U.S. We’re talking automation, increased efficiency and cutting a million dollars a year in costs.

Braeunig: It still wasn’t enough, long term, to support a domestic factory.

In the end, Braeunig was only able to keep his headquarters and a small industrial plastics business in Ohio.

He says the real problem with making toys in the U.S is this: People expect things to be cheap. When the toy factory closed, people were only willing to pay around 99 cents for the basic ball. That’s less than people paid for the same ball in 1967. Braeunig says he just can’t make products for that price here anymore.

There is a factory using the same process and the same space Mr. Rogers saw in 1985. It’s in Oak Park, Ill.

Trolley dings

Mr. Rogers: OK, we’ll put the film in picture-picture and see how people make bass violins in a factory.

The factory is Link Bass and Cello. Everything in the woodshop is covered in sawdust, and there are parts of stringed instruments everywhere.

Tom Link: It’s old school.

Tom Link is the owner.

Link: They’re just, they’re amazed that you’re still around as an instrument maker because we are a dwindling number.

Link’s business is hanging on. But his production is down about 80 percent. Staff is down too, from around 15 to 3 people. Because these days, almost all cellos are made in China. Link’s company has adjusted. It now concentrates on selling more expensive upright basses. Small manufacturers of specialty products have done better over the last decade. But, Link says, something else is important. As Mr. Rogers explained, an upright bass is really big.

Mr. Rogers: You see, it’s about as tall as a mom or a dad.

With oil prices high, shipping anything big from China gets expensive. Tom Link says these shipping costs have saved his business. In fact, his is one of the few factories from the Mr. Rogers videos still around.

But there is hope for new factories. Wallace Hopp is a manufacturing expert. He says certain types of products should still be made here in the U.S.

Wallace Hopp: High tech, you know, you’d see things like medical devices. Or things that you’re trying to match supply with volatile demand, things that are sort of hot for a week. Those kinds of things make sense to make locally.

The kinds of factories Mr. Rogers visited are pretty much a thing of the past. But if they’re lucky, Americans can find manufacturing work making a new generation of products.

Mr. Rogers: It takes so many people who care to make things work well, doesn’t it?

I’m Sarah Alvarez for Marketplace.

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