- 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
Hershey paid fair wages, but there were no advanced labor practices connected with his Utopia—no paid vacations, medical care, or guaranteed wage. There were of course the free entertainment and the low tax rate in the town. Once in a while Hershey would run across a worthy object of help, and secretly, like George Arliss in The Millionaire , he would pay for everything needed. In one case it was a clubfooted boy who, Hershey was assured, could walk again with the help of the proper operations. Another local boy fell victim to some schoolmates who injured him severely in what was intended as a prank; Hershey took care, again, of all the bills. But while the charity was rare, the snooping was regular. One day, for example, Hershey noticed a haystack strangely in place in a field near his factory long after all the rest of the hay had been baled up and stowed in the barns for the winter. He poked into it and discovered a whole batch of spoiled chocolate his workers had hidden for lack of any better place to dump it. Two men were fired. Another time Hershey ordered a man to quit fishing in the town park. The culprit, who happened to be the town barber, gave Hershey some sass, so Hershey simply had the man’s shop—which of course Hershey owned—hauled away.
As business improved—there was five million dollars’ worth in 1911—Hershey simplified his line. Where he had had a hundred fourteen different chocolate items back in Lancaster, now he relied mainly on breakfast cocoa, chocolate syrup, and the mainstays, the bars, some now with almonds. The chocolate factory had turned into a money factory, practically running itself, and the main fun to be found in the business was pulling off deals in the cocoa-bean and sugar markets, stocking up on reserves when prices dropped and laying off when prices rose. Then in 1915 Hershey’s wife, whom he always called Kitty, died—of a long illness never described in any material written anywhere about the family. This no doubt made the Hershey scene somewhat painful to its founder, and in 1917 he took his mother down to Havana for a long stay. There he learned to smoke Corona-Coronas and to bet on the horses at the track. His mother, now eighty, found out that sugar was grown in Cuba and suggested to her son that he put up his own sugar mill so he could save money in supplying the plant back home. The upshot was a typical Hershey production on a big scale—an entire sugar-mill town called Central Hershey. Twenty-eight miles from Havana, it boasted, besides a mill that started out with a capacity of a hundred million pounds of sugar a year, a hotel, a baseball field, a golf course, a park, and a passenger and freight railroad that connected the sixty-thousand-acre estate with Havana in one direction and Matanzas in the other. Soon Hershey was raising hothouse orchids as well as prize Plymouth Rock chickens, and he bought a ten-thousand- dollar bull to sire a herd of Holstein dairy cattle. He built a hundred fifty houses for employees, hired doctors and dentists for them, and bought them an ocean beach- eventually there were several thousand men working for Hershey in various Cuban operations, including five other sugar mills added later. The topper came when Hershey, taking in a group of children whose parents were all suddenly killed in a bloody Cuban train wreck (not on Hershey’s line), founded another orphans’ school. Within a few years the citizens of nearby Matanzas, originally suspicious of Hershey’s motives, had made him an adopted son and honorary citizen.
Except for a single setback, when he lost two and a half million in the sugar market in 1920, Hershey increased his sales and profits every year. In 1927 the company issued new shares on the New York Stock Exchange, but the school retained ownership of two-thirds of the business, as it does today. When Prohibition killed the beer trade, Schlitz, in Milwaukee, made a heavy and frightening bid to take over the chocolate-bar business, but Hershey stood firm and survived. Hershey also protested a candy tax on chocolate on the ground that chocolate is a food, not a candy, and took the case to the Supreme Court, where it was astutely decided that food or candy, whatever chocolate was, it was meant to be included in the taxation. A gang of six brothers named Hershey began putting out chocolates under the brand name Hershey Brothers but were stopped when Milton Hershey sued them. By 1929 the peaceful town of Hershey was producing forty-two million dollars’ worth of chocolate a year, and Milton S. Hershey’s original vision was pretty close to his idea of how it ought to be: “an industrial Utopia where the things of modern progress all center in a town that has no poverty, no nuisances, and no evil.”
He wanted to make things nice for everybody. He suggested that his department store be turned into a co-op, owned by his employees, but the wives were suspicious, fearing they would not be able to shop anywhere else, so he dropped the idea. Sam Rosenberger also recalls a short-lived profit-sharing plan in which workers could get stock in the firm as part of their pay. But many workers, with the spirit of the Plain People strong in their families, believed that dealing in stock was sinful. “It’s a type of gambling, ” Rosenberger explains today. “My parents did not approve of it. ” A pension plan was also put before a committee of employees for their consideration, but when they failed to agree on how it should be set up, Hershey lost patience with them and dropped the idea.