…the whole blue valley spread out before us, and the monastery and all the barns and gardens standing amid the trees below us under a big blue sweep of Kentucky sky, with those white, incomparable clouds… —Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain
Hot Pockets. Pop Tarts. JIF peanut butter. Coal. Thoroughbred horses. Houseboats. Tobacco. Bourbon. Bowling balls. Tiffany engagement rings. Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil. If I seem unfocused, it’s understandable. Our nation’s 15th state defies description. Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Bluegrass State boasts over 4,000 manufacturers. Everything from playing cards to iPhone glass to Dixie Cups. And let’s not forget disco balls. Wait. Disco balls? Yup.
Turns out that Omega National Products in Louisville manufactures 90 percent of the USA-made disco balls, including the one John Travolta danced under in “Saturday Night Fever.” But even in a niche industry like disco ball-making, China threatens. According to nbcnews.com, four decades ago Omega “had 25 workers each churning out 25 balls a day, the Bee Gees’ big hits blasting in the background as they painstakingly glued mirrored tiles to metal spheres. ” Now only one worker, Yolanda Baker, remains.
In a good week Ms. Baker might fill half a dozen orders. I picture her working alone, “Stayin’ Alive” pumping into her earbuds. Each Yolanda-made 12-inch ball sells for $125. I found a 12-inch China-made mirror ball on Amazon that sells for $16.95. As you can imagine, Yolanda-Baker-the-Disco-Ball-Maker isn’t wild about the imported rip-offs. “They have rough edges because the glass isn’t properly sanded,” she says, “and sometimes they’re even made from acrylic. The tiles might have sloppy gaps, and the core could be foam.” The ultimate defect? “They don’t give off the light like ours do. It’s not a ball that’s going to last.” Ouch. You tell ’em, Yolanda. Who says we don’t make stuff here anymore? Take that, Xi Jinping, most authoritarian leader since Mao. Take that, Made in China 2025. Show ’em how it’s done, Yolanda and JT.
But wait, there’s more. How about American-made cars? Kentucky ranks fourth in the nation in auto production. Toyota’s Camry–the best-selling car in the USA–and Ford’s F-Series–the best-selling truck in the USA–are manufactured in KY. Want an American-made baseball bat? Since its founding in 1894, Louisville Slugger’s made over 100 million baseball bats. Now a division of Wilson Sporting Goods (whose parent company is Amer Sports Corporation of Finland), Louisville Slugger continues to operate its factory and museum, drawing visitors from all over the globe. Legends Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig all used Louisville Sluggers. When the Houston Astros won the World Series, Louisville Slugger manufactured 2,017 baseball bats to commemorate the event (available for purchase on the company’s website).
Geographically the commonwealth of Kentucky appears to be situated in the middle of the U.S. But CNBC reports that residents will “tell you proudly they’re from the South.” No worries, Kentuckians. Thanks to my stash of Post-it Notes, manufactured by the 3-M Company in Cynthiana, KY, I’ll remember.
Contrary to what Romy and Michele would have us think, Post-it Notes were invented by Art Fry and Spencer Silver. Always a tinkerer and problem-solver, Mr. Fry, 86, was an undergrad in chemical engineering at University of Minnesota when he landed a job decades ago with 3-M in New Product Development. San Antonio-born Spencer Silver, 86, also ended up working for 3-M after earning a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the University of Colorado. In 1968 Dr. Silver invented a “low tack” adhesive for 3-M, but he and his colleagues couldn’t come up with a marketable use for the product. Then one day in 1975, Art Fry’s bookmarks kept dropping out of his choir hymnal. His co-worker’s low tack adhesive popped into his head. I imagine it was a religious experience.
In 1980, after perfecting the specifications and designing the machinery to produce the product, Post-it Notes were introduced to the world. Opened in 1984, 3-M’s Cynthiana facility continues to manufacture more Post-it Notes than any other factory in the world. Every year during Cynthiana’s fall arts festival, 3-M hosts a Post-it Notes Fashion Show. Creativity shines.
Leaving Post-it Notes and disco balls behind, let’s return to the quote at the top of this post. The “whole blue valley” Thomas Merton describes is the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Situated on 2,000 pastoral acres, “in the middle of the silence and solitude of the Kentucky hills,” the abbey provided Merton a “defense against the world.” World War II had taken his younger brother; existential questions haunted him. Once inside the abbey, God’s peace enfolded him “like love, like safety.” For the next twenty-plus years, Merton worked in the fields alongside his fellow Trappist monks. He wrote, prayed. A revered activist for peace and social justice, he died in 1968.
After last Sunday’s unspeakable violence in Texas, Merton’s beloved abbey sounds like a balm for our angst-ridden American souls. Founded in 1848, the abbey still thrives, the oldest functioning monastery in the USA. The monks support themselves and maintain the ongoing needs of the abbey through Gethsemani Farms, an onsite (and online) store featuring the fruits of their labors: Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake, Trappist Strawberry Preserves, Trappist Pomegranate Jelly, and eight flavors of fudge: Chocolate Bourbon, Butter Walnut Bourbon, Chocolate Walnut, Mint Julep Bourbon, Peanut Butter, Red Raspberry, Natural Dark Chocolate, Lemon Drop. Yum.
In Thoughts in Solitude (1958) Thomas Merton writes: “Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” True. But if we indulge in some Trappist-made Kentucky bourbon chocolate fudge, it might help. I say go for it.
Next up: Louisiana. Suggestions welcome…