Aermotor Windmill Company in San Angelo, Texas

Aermotor Windmill Company in San Angelo, Texas

“Just how do they do that?” we asked. And that question was about everything from Mary Kay cosmetics in Addison to Nokona baseball gloves up north in, you guessed it, Nocona. (The “k” is because the company couldn’t corner the use of the town’s name.) So we called all around the state, from El Paso on the western tip (where we learned a little bit about making boots; see text next page) to Picklesmith in Taft (they periodically have tours) to find
out just what kind of stuff gets canned, frozen, mixed, sewn, printed, or glued together in the Lone Star State.

So if you have a few extra hours during spring break, or if you’re just insatiably curious about how Blue Bell ice cream gets made (another variety of insatiety applies here), we’ve got a few suggestions.

And don’t ask about rolling up a spare sheet of hundred-dollar bills at the Federal money factory in Fort Worth. We already checked, and the folks there
somehow failed to see the humor.

Rocketbuster Boots and CABOOTS, El Paso
El Paso is a bootmaking mecca. This westernmost Texas city is home to major factories for Tony Lama and Lucchese—both big names with longtime
reputations, and both well-known for a quality product worn by millions. These two large factories thrive on mass production and features like computer-controlled stitching. Those processes keep prices low, but they’re nothing like the individual artisan finessing one pair at a time.

Two of El Paso’s custom boot-making operations—CABOOTS and Rocketbuster—encourage tours. Both are relatively small shops that house only a handful of skilled craftsmen. And both Rocketbuster and CABOOTS stress that it’s important to call a couple of days ahead for an appointment to take a tour.

Rocketbuster Boots’ reputation rides on almost shockingly colorful designs and surprising subjects- from Santa Claus to the Statue of Liberty to the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as cartoon characters and tattoo-inspired, almost psychedelic patterns. You’ll see for yourself with just a step inside the front door of the near-downtown Union Plaza warehouse space that is home to Rocketbuster.

Of course you expect to pay more for a pair of made-to-order boots, and Rocketbuster staff members say you’ll start around $650 and head north well into four figures as your design becomes more complex and your leather selections get more exotic.

However, it doesn’t cost anything to look. But be forewarned, temptation lies within this building. Once you’re inside, the bright, kaleidoscopic visual impact of the colorful boots, accessories, and retro artifacts blends with the pungent, smoky aroma of leather and the audio track of the craftsmen tapping, twisting, and hammering. And, it won’t take too much time watching the new boots take shape before you’ll develop a new definition of wearable art. And want a pair for yourself.

Aermotor Windmill Company, San Angelo
A nondescript metal building on the outskirts of San Angelo houses one of the country’s oldest manufacturers—Aermotor Windmill Company. Started
in 1888 in Chicago, the factory shows no signs of slowing down—demand for “the windmill that won the West” is strong, both in the United States and other countries.

General Manager Kevin Stout says that Aermotor’s 20 employees take pride in the company’s long history and the fact that it produces the only windmill made entirely in the U.S. His own pride shows as he takes visitors on one of the half-hour tours offered most weekdays. He starts by explaining that each wheel, whether it’s six feet or 16 feet wide, has 18 sails, as well as a tailbone with the signature red ”Aermotor” stamp, just as they always have. Pointing out a drill press that is thought to have come from the original factory in Chicago, he says, “It’s still used today. One of the neat things about these old machines is that if a part breaks, we can build a replacement for it right here in our shop.”

Asked if urban pioneers have begun buying windmills for energy applications, Stout says not so much. ”We’ve been approached by only a handful of  people wanting to go green,” he says. “Most of our customers just want to fill a stock tank or pond, or perhaps re-create a sound they remember fondly from their past-the distinctive creak of a windmill as it turns in the wind.”

Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Company, Dublin
Tour-goers at Dublin’s Dr Pepper Bottling Company (the world’s oldest) begin their indoctrination by imbibing from frosty bottles of the original-recipe
drink—made with Imperial Pure Cane Sugar (unlike the corn-syrup-sweetened concoction sold in grocery stores). An effervescent guide leads the group through the 1,400-square-foot plant, which produces up to 300 cases of Dr Pepper monthly, along with other drinks like Big Red, Nu Grape, and XXX Root Beer. See the vintage bottle washer (made in 1965, it’s the “newest” machine in the plant), and the contraptions that inject first syrup and then chilled carbonated water into each bottle. And try your hand at quality control by determining the perfect caramel color and appropriate fill lines among a sampling of bottles.

In the adjacent history room, your guide covers Pepper’s past, from the drink’s creation in Waco in 1885 and its bottling in Dublin that same year, to exposure at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and later, promotional campaigns including Pretty Peggy Pepper and the therapeutic oomph of imbibing at 10, 2, and 4 o’clock every day. Peruse the memorabilia in the next room, which brims with such Pepper artifacts as vintage posters, clocks, thermometers, and a timeline featuring a sample bottle from each decade of Dr Pepper’s existence.

Next door, Old Doc’s Soda Shop sells Dr Pepper floats, sundaes, shakes, and Frosty Peppers, as well as several kinds of sandwiches. You’ll find the Pepper product line here, too: T-shirts, caps, mugs, and jewelry, along with Dr Pepper cake mix, sauces, marinades, and syrup (for floats, Frostys, and pancakes).

Collings Guitars, Austin
Musicians such as Lyle Lovett and Pete Townshend applaud Austin-made Collings guitars for their musical clarity, beauty, and craftsmanship. Each of the company’s handmade guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles takes about six months to make (and costs thousands of dollars), and you’ll see why when you take a free tour of the 22,000-squarefoot shop.

My tour group—roughly divided between wide-eyed musicians ogling guitars and wide-eyed woodworkers ogling tools—enjoyed an intimate look at the facility’s many processing areas, including the acclimating room (where floor-to-ceiling stacks of wood reach optimal moisture content), the mill room (where we watched a former aerospace engineer direct a digital cutting machine to carve out a guitar body), the bracing and neck areas (where we could see the instruments start to take shape), and the finishing and buffing areas (where employees create luminous sunbursts and other specialized patterns).

As we proceeded from area to area, our guide pointed out founder Bill Collings’ many guitar-making innovations-such as the contraption that uses heat and moisture to bend wood for the body shapes-and showed us qins of “mistakes,” where tiny flaws destined certain parts for the “boneyard.”

Such is the attention to artistry here that it’s a stretch to call the place a factory. “What did you make before you made guitars?” I asked one luthier. “Houses,” he replied with a smile. “And music.”

Blue Bell Creameries, Brenham
“Brenham—Ice Cream Capital of Texas” proclaims the giant sign at the corner of US 290 and FM 577, which becomes Blue Bell Road, home to Blue Bell
Creameries. The tour begins in a small projection room with a brief, humorous video depicting the history of Blue Bell, founded in 1907 as the Brenham  Creamery Company. Afterward, a guide leads visitors upstairs to watch cream transform into frozen confections. Tour-goers peer through large, glass windows that overlook the various processing areas. Stainless steel vats and chutes crank out the chilly treats into paper tubs, which are loaded into boxes headed for the freezer.

Our guide mentions that less than half of Blue Bell’s 18 year-round and 24 rotating flavors are produced on a given day. Today, we watch half-gallons of Banana Split, Milk Chocolate, and Rocky Road, pints of Moo-llennium Crunch, and three-gallon containers of Homemade Vanilla glide down the line, as well as the rapid assembly of ice cream sandwiches (120 made per minute). We also learn that the cookies in Cookies ‘n Cream (the #2 best-seller, just behind Homemade Vanilla) are made in Blue Bell’s in-house kitchen.

I found it surprising to see most of the factory employees dressed in shirtsleeves. Because the ice cream whisks through the facility so quickly, the rooms can remain at room temperature, except for the shrink-wrap area. Cravings can build, even in the quick half-hour watching workers operate vats and pack
ice cream. Luckily, an ice-cream parlor awaits downstairs at the end of the tour. Visitors receive a serving from their choice of 24 flavors, including the latest creations. An extensive gift shop adjoining the parlor tempts with everything Blue Bell, even temporary tattoos and windbreakers.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Fort Worth
Quick, pull a bill out of your wallet and look to the right of the portrait. If the bill is marked “FW,” it was printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, where more than half of all U.S. paper currency originates. (The rest is printed in Washington, D.C.). You can see some of it roll off the presses on a free tour of the facility.

After a thorough security screening, I joined a tour group for a look-via an elevated, half-mile catwalk-at one of the United States’ most fascinating print shops. Below us, machines larger than semi-trucks rolled out currency notes while pallets of uncut bills waited to dry for the next step in the production
process. Behind green curtains, printers tinkered with the new $100-bill, which will debut later this year. As we observed employees literally make money, our guide educated us about the history of U.S. currency. You can fold a piece of paper currency 4,000 times, for example, before it will tear.

After the 45-minute tour, spend as much time as you wish in the visitor center, which presents dozens of museum-quality exhibits about the history and artistry of paper currency, including a turn-of-the-20th-Century spider press and an engraver’s bench.

Breedlove Foods Inc., Lubbock
A tour of Breedlove Foods in Lubbock—the first and only food-dehydration plant dedicated to feeding the hungry—begins with a stop at a world map mounted on a wall and dotted with pushpins. Established in the early 1990s, Breedlove distributes 200 million servings of food annually to more than 80 countries; the map gives visitors a tangible reference for the global effort that originates in this 100,000- square-foot factory on the South Plains. Think famine sufferers in Kenya, tsunami survivors in Thailand, Katrina evacuees in Arkansas, earthquake survivors in Haiti.

Plant Manager Jim Brown then takes the group down a long hall to the entrance of the processing area, where he gives each visitor a hairnet and dons
one himself. “When it comes to sanitation, we’re no different than any other food handler,” says Brown, who began working for Breedlove as a volunteer when it was still a spin-off from the South Plains Food Bank. As he leads the way to the receiving area, where 40-foot semi-trucks deliver tons of potatoes straight from the farm, he explains that Breedlove initially processed a variety of vegetables, but soon settled on potatoes as the most feasible base for its dehydrated vegetable-soup mix.

”We add other vegetables and seasonings, depending on where a particular shipment is going;’ says Brown. “Since everything is dehydrated, the product has a long shelf life, requires less space and energy to store, and is less expensive to ship. This allows us to minimize our costs, to the point that we can provide shipments of food for less than five cents a serving.”

After following the raw potatoes through a maze of equipment that includes peelers, dicers, blanchers, and a 60-foot-long gas dehydrator, the tour  eventually reaches a processing area where the dehydrated spuds are packaged, along with other ingredients, into a nutritional soup mix-lifesaving food for hungry people around the world.

Nocona Athletics Goods Company, Nocona
Baseball epitomizes all things American. Surprisingly, there’s only one place to find an American-made baseball glove—the Nocona Athletics Goods Company in Nocona. For more than 75 years, the business, owned and operatedby the Storey family, has been creating premier Nokona baseball gloves with skilled crafters going through more than 50 steps, using an array ofleathers, to create more than 60 models. (Note: The Nokona glove was trademarked with a “k” in the spelling because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would not allow the company to register the name of an incorporated town.)

Visitors can take a close-up, guided tour, often led by Neilann McBroom, who has been the company’s public relations manager for five years. She says she’s seen people from all over the world come through to watch the process, which includes die-cutting the leather (cow, buffalo, and kangaroo hides), stamping, monogramming, sewing, lining, binding, lacing, and conditioning the gloves.

In a 2009 Texas Highways interview, pitching legend Nolan Ryan shared with readers that his first baseball mitt, at age 7, was a Nokona. “I still have it to  this day,” he says of the glove, which is now part of the Nolan Ryan Exhibit Center at Alvin Community College.

An unpolished, former boot factory has been home to the company since its 80-year-old building burned to the ground in 2006. There’s no mistaking it’s a working facility, but during a recent visit, our informative guide led us through the narrows of various stations where workers were more than willing to take a moment to demonstrate and explain their parts in the process.

The September 2022 cover of Texas Highways: Visual Wonders


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The September 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine


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