Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Nestled in the Lehigh Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania is the sleepy borough of Nazareth. Protestant immigrants from Germany founded the town in 1740. Initially, Nazareth was Moravian by charter. Outside faiths were not allowed to purchase or own property within Nazareth, which was basically a uniformly German Protestant community.

Bethlehem Steel closed in 2003, partially due to cheap foreign steel production. | Photo by Flickr user Lehigh Valley, Pa.

Flash forward to the 20th Century. In the ’60s, three large cement companies anchored manufacturing in the Nazareth area: Essroc, formally known as Coplay Cement; Hercules Cement; and Penn-Dixie Cement Companies. Every summer, lucky college students from nearby were hired for well-paying labor jobs as summer help. Since the 1980s, however, plant automation and buyouts by foreign firms has brought about the loss of most of those jobs, presenting a blow to the Lehigh Valley economy. The closing of neighboring Bethlehem Steel in 2003 and the subsequent loss of thousands of steel manufacturing jobs further magnified the economic impact on the town.

While some would argue that racecar driver Mario Andretti is Nazareth’s favorite son, there are those who say that honor belongs to Christian Fredrick Martin, founder of Martin guitars. Christian Frederick Martin, Sr. was a luthier who specialized in guitars. He made the first guitar in the United States in the 1830s. At the urging of his wife, Martin moved the guitar shop in 1838 to Nazareth, where it is still located. The factory, which employs 200 workers and the operations for their high-end line of instruments, has a laid-back feel to it, and in the air hangs the smell of woodcuts and lacquer. 

Photo by Mark Musho

Let’s face it; a Martin isn’t cheap. The cost for one can run from a couple grand to a quarter of a million dollars, depending on what bells and whistles you’re looking for. But each guitar is serial-numbered and comes with a lifetime guarantee. And while (like most modern manufacturing) a lot of the work is now automated and done with computer-driven C&C machining, there is still a great deal of hands-on detail work being done by true artisans in Nazareth.

Of course, the downside of touring CF Martin is you’ll leave wanting to take a guitar with you. Unfortunately, in my case that, is presently impossible. But there is an upside: At the end of the tour I was able to take any model off the wall, sit down, and play it … even if I never get a chance to own one.