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The Chocolate Camelot
Once upon a time a shy but persistent candymaker named Hershey dreamed of building his own utopia …
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Out on the streets with a pushcart full of homemade caramels, Milton was stoned by competing vendors who wanted him out of their territory, and the future looked black until an English candy importer chanced to spot Hershey, sample his wares, and order a large shipment. Although all his uncles were down on him for his past failures, Hershey somehow convinced the Lancaster National Bank to lend him seventeen hundred dollars for new equipment and supplies, and once more Aunt Mattie and his mother found themselves wrapping caramels for Milton. The English exports paid off handsomely, and Hershey’s business was at long last on its way to success. With his various caramels—the ten-for-a-penny bean-shaped McGinties and the Jim Cracks, RoIy Polies, and Lotuses —Hershey expanded his Lancaster Caramel Company locally as well as to plants in New York and Chicago until by 1894 he was doing a million dollars of business a year and owned the world’s largest caramel factory. If there hadn’t been a much bigger one ahead, this first poor-boy-makes-good story of Hershey’s single-decade success would already have made a passable American legend.
But with some of the same feisty spirit that informed Israel Putnam’s Bunker Hill command “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”—and we are indeed blessed that there always seems to be somebody around to jot down these inspired remarks—Milton Hershey made a vow out loud when he visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and got his first look at some of the machinery for roasting, hulling, grinding, mixing, and molding chocolate being displayed by the J. M. Lehmann firm of Dresden. Hershey’s proclamation, made to a cousin who went out to the fair with him, was “Frank, I’m going to make chocolate! ” Within weeks the Lancaster plant was full of Germans installing the new chocolate-making machinery. “Caramels are only a fad,” said Hershey, swept up in his new enthusiasm. Soon chocolate candies were pouring out of the plant, and some of the caramels, which continued as the mainstay of production, were sporting chocolate coats.
There were chocolate cigarettes called Le Chat Noir, Smart Set, and Tennis; chocolate cigars called Hero of Manila; and chocolate chrysanthemums, lobsters, and bicycles. There were vanilla chocolate cakes, chocolate wafers, fruit tablets, bricks, croquettes, batons, ladyfingers, even chocolate midgets and chocolate dominoes. Although made in the caramel plant, the new candy was put out in wrappers that bore, somewhere, the legend Hershey’s Chocolate. Aunt Mattie died before the new specialties began paying off, but Hershey did buy a new house for his mother and himself on Queen Street, in Lancaster, and installed a fountain that had a silver ball balanced on a jet of water, out in the front garden. Inside there were flocks of birds in cages, a new $700 Swiss music box, and a new $580 hall clock on an onyx base. He also hired a coachman in livery.
Although Hershey’s involvements with his mother and his aunt have been diligently traced by contemporaries who wrote about him, nobody ever said anything—for the record, anyway—about his love life. But in 1898, all by himself, without either his father or mother in attendance, Hershey married an Irish candy-store clerk from New York in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her name was Catherine Sweeney, and he took her home to live with him and his mother on Queen Street. This little household was a disaster from the start—mother and wife “don’t get on together at all,” Hershey told a friend—so he bought his mother another house and hired her a companion. For good measure he bought the old farmhouse in Derry Township that he was born in and set his father up in that. It was at this point of the neat arranging of the various parts of his life that Hershey faced a new threat: the American Caramel Company wanted him to merge with them in order to make an American caramel monopoly, and if he refused, they would run him out of business. Hershey refused, so American changed its tune and offered to buy him out.
The idea appealed to Hershey if he could keep the chocolate end of the business to himself, so—after some wheeling and dealing—he sold the Lancaster Caramel Company, in 1900, for exactly one million dollars in cash. “That was the best business deal I ever made,” Hershey told a friend. He did indeed keep his chocolate business, renting a wing of his former plant. Celebrating, he decided to take his wife and his mother on a trip around the world, but by the time they got to Mexico City, they were tired of it. Reported Hershey: “Mrs. Hershey said to me, ‘If you call this having a good time, it is more than I do, and I would welcome going back home.’ As these were exactly my sentiments, we cancelled the round-the-world trip and returned to Lancaster. ” The following year Hershey, then forty-four years old, sold $622,000 worth of chocolate. It was time to expand again, and Milton Hershey responded to the challenge, this time, with a visionary dream. Instead of just a new factory he would build a whole new town—a Utopia. In the beauty and perfection of his community the dismal bleakness of all the typical Pennsylvania company towns, run by the mines and mills, would be erased. Hershey had left school in the fourth grade, but this was 1901, the quintessential moment of the self-made man, and Hershey was serenely confident that he could build a Utopia as well as anybody else in the world.