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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Help restore U.S. manufacturing -- buy American!

America is becoming a what-did-this-used-to-be country.

America is becoming a what-did-this-used-to-be country. Credit: Tribune Media Services / M. Ryder

What did this used to be?

It's a question I find myself asking every summer when my wife and I visit New Hampshire to drop off or pick up daughters from summer camp.

The conversation typically goes something like: "This may be the best B.L.T. in North America. By the way, what did this place used to be?"

On Sunday, in Plymouth, N.H., the answer was the J. Foster Shoe and Peg Mill, which turned out millions of shoe pegs and other wood products from 1898 until 2001, under several different owners. It's now the Common Man Inn & Spa, whose B.L.T. really is not to be missed.

The Common Man is up the road from the old Draper & Maynard building that once churned out baseball gloves, uniforms and sports paraphernalia for some of the best ballclubs in America. A picture of Babe Ruth at the site circa 1916 standing next to Boston Red Sox teammates, and clad head-to-toe in racoon, backs up the story neatly. Leather helmets worn by American combat pilots in World War II came from the old D&M building, too.

It now houses file cabinets and Plymouth State University students.

Don't feel sorry for Plymouth; it's a thriving college and tourism town today. It's found profitable uses for its historic buildings, which are surrounded by verdant mountains -- and a flock of giant wind turbines flapping their arms above. The windmills are jarring to look at, but they suggest a hopeful future. Plymouth may not be making anything anymore, but it is making money, and people are thinking ahead as a result.

It's the towns that don't happen to be gateways to New Hampshire's incomparable White Mountains that chill the blood. "What did this used to be?" takes on a very different meaning when the place in question is a shuttered factory ... next to another and another on some dull gray downtown block.

The saddest thing is that we're starting to get used to seeing them. The old hulking masses are beginning to look like a normal part of land- and cityscapes. Even so, they manage to serve as gnawing reminders that America is becoming a what-did-this-used-to-be country. Yes, we still make plenty of things -- we're second only to China in manufacturing output -- but the trend is disquieting.

We hear the stats all the time: In 2011, we turned out a little more than 8 million vehicles -- about what we turned out in 1950 when the world had almost 5 billion fewer people. China made no cars in 1950. In 2000, it made about 2 million; in 2011, it made 18 million. It's pretty much the same story, or worse, for the durable goods, consumer electronics and textile industries.

I get the whole free market argument. But it's hard not to think that we're cutting our own throats in this country. Yes, we should buy the best products at the best possible prices no matter where they come from, but when those products are truly comparable -- like say a Ford vs. a Toyota -- shouldn't we be encouraging each other to "Buy American"? Isn't that something we should all be able to agree on?

You don't hear the adage "Buy American" so much anymore. Certainly not like we did in the 1970s and '80s. Everyone's too busy blaming one political party or the other for the jobs that have gone overseas. Maybe we need to freshen up the slogan: "Don't Blame Congress -- Buy American." Or even, "Shut Up and Buy American!"

There's a curtness to that last one I like. Because at the end of the day, isn't it up to us what we buy?

A story out earlier this month recalls a different era: An 84-year-old General Electric refrigerator was found to be working perfectly in Montgomery, N.Y. It is believed to be the oldest working refrigerator in the world. A 1929 assembly line photo showing the exact model refrigerator accompanied coverage of the story. I wonder what that factory is used for now. I wonder if it makes a good B.L.T.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.