I'm an American boy at heart. As such, I grew up with Lincoln Logs.
Forty-odd years later, I'm now an father, with an American boy of my own -- and of course, I want him to have a set of Lincoln Logs of his own. But here's where I ran into a problem.
Logging (pardon the pun) onto Amazon.com (AMZN) and scanning the reviews of the various sets of Lincoln Logs available for sale, I was struck by a small minority of reviewers complaining of a "chemical" smell the toys gave off, while others worried about chemicals used in their manufacture -- they're apparently made in China. In fact, the "most helpful critical review" featured on Amazon at the time of my search cited a "potent ... toxic smell" to the product.
Now, granted, these reviews constitute just 1 or 2 percent of the more than 350 customer reviews that Amazon has collected for just one single Lincoln Logs product. But in the context of a country of manufacture that's been hit with consumer complaints over everything from melamine-laced baby formula to lead-painted Thomas the Tank Engine sets, you can see why these reviews might give a prudent parent pause.
Long story short, when it came to buy my boy his first set of Lincoln Logs, I opted for a used set, manufactured by Playskool in the 1970s and bought on eBay (EBAY).
But here's the good news: Pretty soon, you won't have to.
Made in America, by American Workers
Nearly a century after their invention by the son of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Lincoln Logs are now manufactured under license from Hasbro (HAS) by the toy company K'NEX. The family-owned business has in fact been handling Lincoln Logs production for Hasbro for about 15 years now.
K'NEX announced this month that, after decades of outsourcing Lincoln Logs' manufacture to foreign countries, it's bringing production of the iconic toy back home to the U. S. of A. Specifically, K'NEX says it will begin Lincoln Logs production at Pride Manufacturing in Burnham, Maine for its 2015 line. (The move follows K'NEX's relocation of Tinkertoy production -- another Hasbro line that it licenses -- to Hatfield, Pennsylvania, in 2012.)
That's right: Beginning sometime next year, whether you're in the market for a "Horseshoe Hill Station" set, or "Oak Creek Lodge" -- or even Lincoln Logs' "100th Anniversary Tin" -- you'll be able to buy a set built right here in America.
But this is more than just a feel-good story about one iconic toy. It means something bigger for American business and the U.S. economy.
Remember, K'NEX isn't just taking a shot in the dark here, moving the manufacture of a low-tech product line to high-cost America, and hoping against hope that the economics will work. K'NEX hasdone a trial run of this idea with Tinkertoys, and has accumulated two years' worth of data on the project's success -- data that has apparently convinced K'NEX that it's possible to make a profit building even low-tech children's toys in America again. (And you don't get much lower-tech than wooden logs.)
Rebuilding America's Future, One Log at a Time
Elsewhere, the trend of "reshoring" the manufacture of U.S. products to U.S. companies continues apace. Rapid wage growth among laborers in China has narrowed the gap between wages here and abroad, even as U.S. companies grow increasingly frustrated with the difficulty of responding quickly to changes in the market -- because products designed here but manufactured there can take months to reach the U.S. market by cargo ship.
At the same time, new discoveries of shale oil and gas lower the cost of energy used by domestic manufacturers. Result: We're seeing companies from General Electric (GE) to Ford (F) to Apple (AAPL) joining K'NEX in the trend to bring American products' production back here to America itself.
The moral of this story? K'NEX isn't the first company to reshore manufacturing to the U.S. And it won't be the last.
In honor of K'NEX's announcement, Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith built a tunnel out of Lincoln Logs for the Christmas tree train set to run through. Sadly, the trains themselves are still made in China. He has no position in any stocks mentioned, but The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, eBay, Ford and Hasbro. The Motley Fool also owns shares of General Electric. Is your portfolio ready for the new year? Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.