The Chocolate Camelot

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Two weeks after the battle Hershey workers voted 1,542 to 781 for an independent union, the Independent Chocolate Workers. (The cio accused it of being a company union, and two years later the National Labor Relations Board upheld this position, finally bringing the cio officially into Hershey.) Peace was restored in Hershey, but bitterness remained below the surface sweetness, visible even through the rigorous cheeriness of a surprise party for Milton Hershey’s eightieth birthday, the crowning moment of his life, five months after the bloody strike. While some seven thousand people sat silent in the sports arena a friend lured Hershey inside, pretending he wanted him to examine some new lights. Hershey emerged onto a platform to find the throng cheering, applauding, and blowing tin horns and ringing handbells in his honor. They sang “Happy Birthday,” and they wept, and they cheered Hershey’s huge cake with the eighty electric candles. In one of his rare public speeches Hershey thanked them, saying, “I’ve tried to make things pleasant and agreeable for everybody, although, as you know, some people have been telling you otherwise. They’ve been telling you that I am a grasping old fellow whose only purpose in life is to grab everything he sees.” There followed a minister’s half-hour eulogy of the town’s founder and then five vaudeville acts and a dance.

The disappointment Hershey felt in what he thought of as the ingratitude of his workers stayed with him, and there was a touch of sourness in the last years of his life. One Christmas Eve a cousin found him alone in his rooms, complaining of having no family. The cousin reminded him of all the orphan boys, but Hershey, who never had had any children, refused to be cheered. “They are not my own,” he said. In his last years he became careless of his usual neat dress, but he was still lively. His doctor writes that his nurse would drive him around, and “if anything caught his eye they’d stop for a closer look. One day he crawled under a fence to see something in a field. The nurse turned away for a moment and when she looked again he had disappeared. She found him. He had fallen into a sink hole and she had to haul him out. ” A few weeks before his death, at eighty-eight, he was experimenting in his rooms with new formulas for cocoabutter soap. Then a sudden cold sent him to the hospital, where, on October 13, 1945, he died of heart failure.

But the company, now called the Hershey Foods Corporation, lives on. In 1971 it reported sales of over four hundred million dollars and a twenty-million-dollar profit, of which 90 per cent came from chocolate and cocoa; new subsidiaries making spaghetti and restaurant equipment accounted for the rest. The old nickel Hershey bar is gone—it lasted from 1903 to 1970, and in just the years since the last war it shrank twelve times, until it nearly disappeared.∗ (The surviving dime bar now weighs a bit over an ounce.) In the I96o’s new plants were opened in California and in Canada, not without certain problems. According to a 1970 report in the Wall Street Journal , there was trouble making the chocolate taste right. For a time Pennsylvania milk was shipped to Canada to try to improve the flavor, but it didn’t help. Things have gone better in California, but some say the best Hershey bars still come from Hershey.

∗The public relations department of Hershey Foods points out that the size of the chocolate bar is kept in proportion to costs and therefore fluctuates: several times since 1945 the bar has temporarily increased in size.

Current president Harold S. Mohler, a cautiously affable, round-faced, cigar-smoking engineer, feels the main difference around Hershey over the years is that “people aren’t work-oriented the way they used to be. I don’t mean they won’t work or don’t like to work, it’s just that work doesn’t take up all their waking hours the way it used to be. And the community is more cosmopolitan now; not so high a percentage of the people work for Hershey now.” Another prominent Hershey executive, board chairman William E. Schiller, who has an ambassadorial stance and a very direct eye, says the firm wants to broaden itself into the specialty-foods field—“but we are not hell-bent on acquiring new subsidiaries. We want to work gradually into the market created by people who eat away from home. But chocolate will remain our main concern.” Of the community Schiller says emphatically: “People here are really great. It’s a wonderful place to raise children.” Like most Hershey employees, Schiller eats a lot of free chocolate—unwrapped, it is available anywhere in the plant, but you’re not supposed to take it home with you. “I don’t see how anyone can get tired of chocolate,” says Schiller.