The Chocolate Camelot


Hershey’s Shangri-la amazingly did keep the outside world at bay when the Depression hit the country in 1929. Chocolate sales dropped some, but cocoa-bean prices fell even more, and there were a lot of Americans who could still afford a nickel Hershey bar for lunch. So in 1930 the firm made an amazing seven and a half million dollars’ profit. But what saved Hershey people from the effects of the nationwide slump was Milton Hershey’s enthusiastic local counterattack: he immediately started a huge building-construction program that would have done credit to a good-sized city, with the idea of keeping his people at work. He could fulfill some of his old Utopian projects and at the same time take advantage of dropping prices of construction materials.


His mother, who died in 1920, had always kept him from realizing one big dream. For many years, up on Pat’s Hill north of town, he had kept a grove of evergreens around a great bald spot meant for an imposing resort to be called Hotel Hershey. Now he showed architects post cards of hotels he had visited in Egypt and Spain, and the result was a Hollywoodish castle of a hundred fifty rooms, with an indoor courtyard sporting a blue ceiling with clouds and green-carpet grass between pathways. A great circular dining room posed engineering problems because Hershey, who had been stashed at tables behind pillars in some of the European restaurants, insisted there be no posts at all in his place. (In his Cuba hotel he had had a private dining room built for himself when he found that his Cuban customers played a radio very loudly in the public restaurant there.) When the hotel was nearly finished, Hershey brought over sixty families of Italian workmen to lay tile, and Lowell Thomas rotundly pronounced the result “a palace that out-palaces the palaces of the maharajahs of India.”

At the same time that the hotel was going up, at a cost of a million and a half, a sprawling five-story community center was also being built, across from the factory, to cost twice as much as the hotel. Its rooms decorated in variously clashing Italian Renaissance and French provincial styles, it has a library, a swimming pool, fencing and boxing gyms, a dining hall, a dormitory, and two theatres, one for plays and the other for movies (Hershey, who was somewhat prudish, had these censored for many years for “sensual dances”). Hershey also built new schools, both for the town and for his orphan boys, who by the late thirties numbered well over a thousand; and he put up a sports arena with a novel roof of reinforced concrete for his hockey team, the Hershey Bears (commonly called Hershey Bars by local boosters). He tried to talk the five local churches into letting him build them all one great big church that they would use in turn, and when he found everybody sour on his idea, he gave each church twenty thousand dollars to fix up its old buildings. He built a new stadium seating sixteen thousand, and he claimed: “No man in Hershey was dropped by reason of the depression.” As a sort of Christmas-stocking stuffer, Hershey also gave away his home, High Point, to be used as a country club by his employees, keeping a couple of upstairs rooms for his own residence, and he hung an inscribed plaque above his fireplace reading “My Home I Give To You—The Best I Have. ”


For his executives Hershey put another small fortune into a new office building constructed without windows to be very, very modern; and coincidentally it kept out the “chockle shtink. ” But no sooner had the Depression been survived than there appeared an unbelievable sight right outside this new structure, and smack in front of the marvellous new community center: union organizers, picketing! At seventy-nine Hershey had made his Utopia, had brought it through the Depression unscathed and unchanged, and his people obviously loved him for it. A friend said that when he saw the pickets, he was “like a kid who’s had his face slapped.” Employees were given a twelve-cent raise, to sixty cents an hour, but the union men stayed. This was in March, 1937. A month later, when seasonal layoffs put some recently hired workers out of jobs, the union claimed its members were being discriminated against (company practice had traditionally been to lay off employees, when necessary, from among those living; beyond a five-mile radius of the plant).