Saturday, March 22, 2014

From State-of-the-Art to Appalachian Arts

We recently had a wonderful time traveling through central Kentucky. On our agenda was a visit to the Toyota manufacturing for their plant tour and then down to beautiful Berea College. The first stop was a bit northwest of Lexington, while the second is located south of Lexington.

On the way to the Toyota plant, we ate lunch at an interesting barbecue joint above Lexington called Red State BBQ. The building dates back to the 1930s when it originally served as a gas station next to a motor court. After I-75 bypassed this location, the gas station was expanded into a restaurant. The Sunset Motel was looking for a new twist to get business, so they converted every other room into a garage. It made the motel popular for cheating spouses, who could hide their cars inside the garage that came with their room.

The Toyota visitor center had many interesting displays, including the 1988 Camry (shown above) that was the first car built there. At 2:00 we were ushered into a conference room to watch a video about the plant and the tour we would soon begin. At the conclusion, we got our earphones (which allowed the tour guide to provide commentary), boarded the tram, put on our safety glasses, and fastened our seatbelts to see how Toyotas are assembled. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed (I wish they would reconsider this policy).

It was an amazing tour, that took us from the big coils of rolled up steel, to the giant stamping machines, to the robotic welders, and then along the assembly line as parts were added in stages until the final version rolled off under its own power. The only process we didn't see was the painting area, because Toyota didn't want any lint or other substances from the guest tours to contaminate the area. We even saw some of the transmissions built in Toyota’s plant in Buffalo, West Virginia.

This Toyota plant employs about 7000 people, and a new area is under construction where they will expand to produce Lexus vehicles as well. It is a huge place! They seem to place a large focus on their employees and on the environment.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Toyota plant was the automation. The welding is done primarily by an army of robotic arms. They were like a symphony in motion, as their computer programs choreographed their every move.

Another high-tech amazement was all the AGVs (automated guided vehicles) running around the plant, delivering parts to the assembly line. They had warning lights, but no drivers. They followed their pre-programmed directions as they carried such items as instrument panel assemblies.

Following all this futuristic advanced technology, we drove south of Lexington to visit Berea College. I was fortunate to participate in a leadership development program there about a dozen years ago, and found it to be a wonderful experience. [Of course, another reason why I like Berea is because the nickname for their athletic teams is the Mountaineers.]

Berea College was founded by abolitionists in 1855 and became the first college in the south to be coeducational and racially integrated. It also is unique because it requires all students to work for the college in lieu of paying tuition. Student job duties include food service, teaching assistance, gardening and groundskeeping, janitorial labor, secretarial work, etc.

However, another of Berea's unique aspects is its focus on preserving Appalachian heritage, and especially traditional crafts and bluegrass music. Students also can perform their work-study hours by jobs such as weaving or woodworking, to create items sold to campus visitors in the gift shop. This emphasis on Appalachian history at Berea College has helped make the area a center for quality arts and crafts.

There are many interesting places to explore in this small town. We started at the Kentucky Artisan Center just off the Berea exit of I-75 (it is a bit like a small version of the Tamarack visitor center in West Virginia). However, to get the full experience, you need to venture beyond the interstate and into the campus area. We browsed the small gift shops adjacent to the college and watched students working on the big looms in the weaving house.

We enjoyed an excellent dinner in the Historic Boone Tavern, the hotel and restaurant owned by the college and which is staffed by students. We even met a freshman student from my hometown of Parkersburg who works in the restaurant. Her job was to deliver the spoonbread to all the tables. Spoonbread is a signature dish at the Boone Tavern, and is very tasty. Our meal was a great way to finish the day that took us from state-of-the-art to arts & crafts!

If you are ever in the Lexington area, I’d encourage you to visit both of these interesting sites.

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