The Chocolate Camelot

PrintPrintEmailEmailMilton Snavely Hershey, the chocolate man, was talking to an old friend some forty years ago about the strange, artificial, moneymaking town that he had started from scratch, and named for himself, back at the turn of the century: “We haven’t any politics, and our employes don’t have to live here if they don’t want to.” He explained how the town of Hershey, set in the lush, rolling dairy land of central Pennsylvania, was run: “When a street is to be paved, or something is required to be done in this town, somebody always notices the need before it becomes imperative. If he happens to be passing our offices, he walks in and tells us, or else he passes the word along through a third party. I am informed, if I am in town, and we go ahead with the work.” It was “M.S.”—as Hershey was deferentially called—who personally decided what work did or did not need doing, and it was M.S. who paid for it.

“You might liken this business to a large farm, “he said, “and when I speak of the business I include the community. We can all find plenty to do without wasting time on rules and regulations. It has been my experience that the expectation of trouble is often one of the chief causes of it. Men make regulations to prevent other men from doing something wrong or foolish. Later it is discovered that the regulation interferes with actions which might be of general benefit. We simply try not to interfere with people who want to work.” Hershey deeply resented any criticism of his altruism. A Fortune reporter in 1934 claimed that local Pennsylvania Dutch farmers called the characteristic smell in the Hershey air “da chockle shtink, ” and he continued : “The moral atmosphere of the town is pervaded by another odor —the sweet and oppressive odor of charity.” Hershey retorted: “I’ve always half suspected that some of these so-called New York wonder workers are disgruntled because they can’t get their fi ngers on my money ! I Ve tried to build a town where people can live contentedly, and where they can be happy at work, and where they can live in pleasant surroundings. You’d think I’d get a little credit for what I have done, wouldn’t you?”

By the time Hershey died in 1945, at the age of eighty-eight, he had done a great deal. Besides the world’s biggest chocolate factory and a trust fund of eighty million dollars, he had created the world’s richest orphanage, two hotels including a huge resort, an airport, a lumber company, a department store, a drugstore, a cafeteria, a professional hockey team, a sports arena, a stadium, four golf courses, a soap division, a cold-storage plant, a slaughterhouse, a laundry and dry-cleaning business, an elaborate zoo, an amusement park, a greenhouse and nursery, a feed mill, a garden with 120,000 plants in it, a campground, a bakery, a community center, a theatre, a dairy, a monorail, a museum, a coal business, an auto garage, a fertilizer plant, a real-estate operation, and a bank—all in Hershey. There were also, down in Cuba, some sugar mills and a 287-mile-long railroad. After a series of business failures in his twenties and thirties, there was a special sweetness for Hershey in his nearly untroubled triumphs during his middle years as his plant and his town prospered. But there was bitterness again toward the end of his life as the world began to play tricks on him, to change around him, to refuse to give thanks to him any more. Hershey’s story spans two worlds. When he first began selling candy, the industrial revolution had only just come into full bloom; machines and the “progress” they would bring were beloved and honored on all sides. When he finally quit any active role in his business, a few months before he died, another world war had killed the notion of “progress” and robbed the machine of its old aura of do-gooder. Somehow the times had robbed Hershey of his do-gooder mantle as well. The younger workers in his plant were demanding a share of the country’s wealth as their right, not as a gift of M. S. Hershey. But the old man never quite figured out these new people.


Hershey’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Christian Hershey, immigrated to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in 1709; Milton was born near Hockersville, Pennsylvania—a few miles from the site of present-day Hershey —in 1857. His father, Henry, was a tall, garrulous, restless farmer always experimenting with new crops or improved breeds of poultry and livestock. A freethinker, he never got along with his morally strict and penny-pinching Mennonite wife, Fanny. Henry often left home for months at a time, involved in one or another of some seventeen different trades, at all of which he failed— steelworker, gold miner, fruit-tree expert, and preacher among them. Henry at one time painted still-life pictures in oil for sale locally but sold none, mainly because the religious Plain People of the area forbade any such frivolous, worldly decorations on their walls. Henry was always in the wrong place at the wrong time—he even managed to run a likely product called the Celebrated H. H. Hershey’s Cough Drops into the ground just as the famous Smith brothers were beginning to build their fortune. For a long time it seemed as if Milton was following in his father’s footsteps, but eventually, with the encouragement and financial help of his mother and her maiden sister—not to say their bossy pushing—he made it in the candy business.