- Historic Sites
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
For his new town Hershey bought twelve hundred acres of farmland near his birthplace in Derry Township, and ground was broken for the plant in 1903. The surrounding dairy land would provide milk for a fast-growing new product, milk chocolate in a bar. (This had been invented in Switzerland in 1876; Hershey’s innovation was to take it out of the luxury class, sell it for a nickel, and make a national pastime out of eating Hershey bars.) He laid out Chocolate Avenue and Cocoa Avenue and built new houses for his workers to rent or to buy as they moved in from the closed-down operations in Lancaster. He built a hundred-room hotel and established the Hummelstown and Campbelltown Electric Street Railway, running between the plant and five surrounding towns. He built a pavilion in a park and put on free vaudeville shows and dances (music by the Hershey band), and there were restaurants, a lake with rowboats, baseball and football teams, new schools, a zoo, an amusement park, and a new railroad station. By 1906 Hershey, whose sales that year were already $1,200,000, was ready to name his Utopia, so he held a naming contest. Suggestions included Chococoa City, Etabit, Qualitytells, Ulikit, Thrift, Hustletown, and even St. Milton. The prize went to a lady in WilkesBarre, for Hersheykoko, but the United States Post Office rejected this winner and shortened it to Hershey. Hershey was satisfied with that.
In 1908 Hershey incorporated his business, naming William F. R. Murrie, his long-time plant manager in Lancaster, as president. Hershey never did hold this title, keeping away from direct operational control as chairman of the board. In this year he also built High Point, a twenty-room mansion with a high, columned façade looking out complacently on the tall factory smokestacks a few hundred yards away. In the house he placed “tree-style” chandeliers from Paris, fourteen oil paintings from New York, and, although he was never seen reading a book, glassed-in bookcases with sets of classic authors. High Point was actually not enormously luxurious, however, and by the following year Hershey realized he was making more money than he knew what to do with, in spite of continuous expansion of the chocolate plant. The wealth, he decided, would go into an orphan school to be run right in Hershey, and for this purpose he bought 486 more acres of farmland. It would be a rather special school: it admitted principally boys with one parent—preferably a mother—still living. As for girls, they were not admitted at all. “The orphan boy has a hard time of it,” said Hershey. “There are always relatives or outsiders who will take orphan girls, for they are useful in the home, and people are glad to get them. Boys are likely to be looked upon as a nuisance, and the more spirit they have the bigger nuisance they are, from that standpoint. So I want to help these boys.” The plant would benefit slightly from the milk the boys would produce in their farming operation—Hershey always loved multipurpose enterprises—and the boys would learn farming and other useful trades only: “We do not plan to turn out a race of professors, ” said Hershey.
Like the factory, the orphan school prospered, and at length, in 1918, Hershey gave it all the stock—full ownership—of the Hershey Chocolate Company. Hershey’s rather fawning biographer, his cousin Joseph R. Snavely, wrote that his hero was “as friendly a millionaire as one would wish to meet. He is of medium weight and height, and ruddy faced, with a grim, practical jaw that belies the twinkle in his eye. He talks slowly, and not so much at a time.” He was also curious, willful, and suspicious and would poke around his town just as his mother had constantly patrolled the early family farmstead, looking for anything that might be out of place or in need of repair. Hershey would advise local residents—his employees, of course—to paint up a fence or clean up an untidy yard, and he once got thrown out of the local icecream parlor (Hershey-owned, too) when he snooped behind the counter to check on the cleanliness of the milk cans; the soda jerk did not know who he was. All municipal concerns were taken care of by the firm, and he would fire street laborers on the spot for leaning on their shovels. Once on an inspection tour of his hotel he spotted an unbeautiful sight through the open door of one of the rooms and barked in his high-pitched, impatient voice to the manager: “What are those pop bottles doing on the window in there?”
Examples of Hershey humor are rare. Says Sam Rosenberger, who retired from the firm in 1972, after forty-nine years as a cocoa-bean expert: “Hershey was a businessman, that came fi rst with him. He never would spend time just talking with people or meeting them.” A hint of Hershey whimsy did come out when an English manufacturer, visiting the Pennsylvania factory, claimed he could prove his own chocolate was better just by tasting it. Hershey managed to switch the labels on the samples, and when the Englishman claimed his victory, Hershey exposed the trick. On another occasion, when a union official tried to browbeat Hershey by insisting that no American should buy any nonunion product whatever, Hershey, on a hunch, bet him that his shirt was made by nonunion labor and proved he was right by exposing the label in the collar. He was not exactly self-effacing, but he was shy before groups and never made a speech of more than a few phrases. He hated telephones and would not have one in his office, and although his signature appeared on the Hershey bar—“none genuine without this signature” for many years, he seldom signed documents or letters, preferring telegrams or simple oral instructions.