BURNHAM — Lincoln Logs, a toy that has been used by children around the world for nearly a century, will be made in central Maine now that the distributor of the well-known building sets returns some of its manufacturing to the United States.
Executives of Pride Manufacturing Company announced Wednesday that production of the toy logs has already started at its Burnham plant, where the company currently produces wooden golf accessories such as tees and cleats, and wooden cigar tips.
The company’s contract to produce Lincoln Logs is one example of a growing trend toward manufacturing finished wood products in Maine, a market that has been increasing as a number of companies redirect production from overseas to the U.S., according to analysts. For years, the number of jobs in wood manufacturing have steadily declined in the U.S., but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of employees in the U.S. wood manufacturing sector has risen from a 10-year low of 332,200 in 2011 to 367,400 in June 2014.
“There is a lot of excitement in the manufacturing of wood products right now,” Dan Crowley, executive director of the Maine Wood Products Association, a trade organization, said Wednesday. “A lot of things that used to be sourced overseas are coming back to Maine. It’s been a slow march, but we’re starting to see a change for the better.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage and members of the media were invited to tour the inside of the Burnham factory, which currently employs about 130 people. The production of Lincoln Logs is expected to add five to 10 jobs, officials said.
“It’s not just so we can say our product is American-made,” said Larry Fanelle, chief supply chain officer for K’NEX, the company that licenses the rights to sell the Lincoln Log toys from Hasbro Inc., the Rhode Island-based toy and game company. “We’re closer to our market, the North American market, and it reduces our excess inventory because we don’t have to project so far in advance to make the products. We can always meet the order now. Being in the North American market and working in that market we can now be closer to the market and bring new designs to the market quicker.”
About seven years ago, K’NEX, which is based in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, began looking for opportunities to bring more of its manufacturing to the U.S., said Fanelle. At the time, about 80 percent of its products — which also includes brands such as Tinkertoy, Angry Birds and PacMan — were being made in China and about 20 percent domestically. The toy construction company shares headquarters with sister company The Rodon Group, a maker of plastic hardware parts.
Managers at Pride Sports in Burnham, which is based in Brentwood, Tennessee, and owned by a New York-based private equity company, saw online that K’NEX was looking to move the manufacturing of Lincoln Logs back to the U.S. and invited them to come to the Burnham factory, said Randy Dicker, senior director of manufacturing at Pride.
When production of the toy is at capacity, about 20 percent of K’NEX’s products will be made in China and 80 percent in the U.S., including Lincoln Logs, which will be produced only at the Burnham plant.
“A lot of retailers and buyers have found that products made overseas are not necessarily of the same quality as those made in the U.S.,” said Crowley. “People are a little skeptical of the ‘Made in China’ label, and there are many companies that are jumping on the bandwagon and reaping the benefits of people wanting to buy local.”
In the wood products industry, that new desire for domestic manufacturing tends to apply to companies that specialize in smaller finished products, such as Lincoln Logs. Items that were traditionally manufactured in Maine such as wooden dowels, turnings and furniture parts can be made in the U.S. without incurring a large cost difference, said Crowley.
In 2009 Pride Sports closed its Guilford factory, but the company still maintains a machinery shop that was used to produce two machines designed specifically to make Lincoln Logs, said Dicker. On Wednesday, employees had already begun work on the small wooden logs. The company expects to produce 30 million logs annually.
The logs come packaged in building sets containing anywhere from 80 to 170 pieces and will be painted and packaged near company headquarters in Pennsylvania. The toy was invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, a son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and named after President Abraham Lincoln’s fabled childhood cabin, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame.
During a press conference Wednesday at Pride, LePage touted his “Maine is Open for Business” campaign and spoke on the state of manufacturing in Maine and the wood products industry.
“We’re very proud to see K’NEX coming to Maine to bring back the Lincoln Log,” he said. “It is critical that we not only continue to do a good job with this quality product, but if we focus in on bringing back manufacturing, we can get more products in and that is the future. We have to pay attention to what made Maine prosperous in the past because that is what will make Maine prosperous in the future, and that is forestry, agriculture and fishing.”
The town of Burnham is working with the company to apply for a federal Community Development Block Grant that can be used to help create jobs and expand businesses in low or moderate income level areas, said Anne Goodblood, a selectwoman in the town of about 1,100 people.
“Five jobs really is a lot when you have a small population,” said Goodblood. “Pride (Manufacturing) is very important to our town. We have so many people, locals that are employed by Pride, and they carry a large percentage of our tax base. We want to do everything we can to help them get the machinery and equipment they need.”