- 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
Milton Snavely Hershey, the chocolate man, was talking to an old friend some forty years ago about the strange, artificial, moneymaking town that he had started from scratch, and named for himself, back at the turn of the century: “We haven’t any politics, and our employes don’t have to live here if they don’t want to.” He explained how the town of Hershey, set in the lush, rolling dairy land of central Pennsylvania, was run: “When a street is to be paved, or something is required to be done in this town, somebody always notices the need before it becomes imperative. If he happens to be passing our offices, he walks in and tells us, or else he passes the word along through a third party. I am informed, if I am in town, and we go ahead with the work.” It was “M.S.”—as Hershey was deferentially called—who personally decided what work did or did not need doing, and it was M.S. who paid for it.
“You might liken this business to a large farm, “he said, “and when I speak of the business I include the community. We can all find plenty to do without wasting time on rules and regulations. It has been my experience that the expectation of trouble is often one of the chief causes of it. Men make regulations to prevent other men from doing something wrong or foolish. Later it is discovered that the regulation interferes with actions which might be of general benefit. We simply try not to interfere with people who want to work.” Hershey deeply resented any criticism of his altruism. A Fortune reporter in 1934 claimed that local Pennsylvania Dutch farmers called the characteristic smell in the Hershey air “da chockle shtink, ” and he continued : “The moral atmosphere of the town is pervaded by another odor —the sweet and oppressive odor of charity.” Hershey retorted: “I’ve always half suspected that some of these so-called New York wonder workers are disgruntled because they can’t get their fi ngers on my money ! I Ve tried to build a town where people can live contentedly, and where they can be happy at work, and where they can live in pleasant surroundings. You’d think I’d get a little credit for what I have done, wouldn’t you?”
By the time Hershey died in 1945, at the age of eighty-eight, he had done a great deal. Besides the world’s biggest chocolate factory and a trust fund of eighty million dollars, he had created the world’s richest orphanage, two hotels including a huge resort, an airport, a lumber company, a department store, a drugstore, a cafeteria, a professional hockey team, a sports arena, a stadium, four golf courses, a soap division, a cold-storage plant, a slaughterhouse, a laundry and dry-cleaning business, an elaborate zoo, an amusement park, a greenhouse and nursery, a feed mill, a garden with 120,000 plants in it, a campground, a bakery, a community center, a theatre, a dairy, a monorail, a museum, a coal business, an auto garage, a fertilizer plant, a real-estate operation, and a bank—all in Hershey. There were also, down in Cuba, some sugar mills and a 287-mile-long railroad. After a series of business failures in his twenties and thirties, there was a special sweetness for Hershey in his nearly untroubled triumphs during his middle years as his plant and his town prospered. But there was bitterness again toward the end of his life as the world began to play tricks on him, to change around him, to refuse to give thanks to him any more. Hershey’s story spans two worlds. When he first began selling candy, the industrial revolution had only just come into full bloom; machines and the “progress” they would bring were beloved and honored on all sides. When he finally quit any active role in his business, a few months before he died, another world war had killed the notion of “progress” and robbed the machine of its old aura of do-gooder. Somehow the times had robbed Hershey of his do-gooder mantle as well. The younger workers in his plant were demanding a share of the country’s wealth as their right, not as a gift of M. S. Hershey. But the old man never quite figured out these new people.
Hershey’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Christian Hershey, immigrated to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in 1709; Milton was born near Hockersville, Pennsylvania—a few miles from the site of present-day Hershey —in 1857. His father, Henry, was a tall, garrulous, restless farmer always experimenting with new crops or improved breeds of poultry and livestock. A freethinker, he never got along with his morally strict and penny-pinching Mennonite wife, Fanny. Henry often left home for months at a time, involved in one or another of some seventeen different trades, at all of which he failed— steelworker, gold miner, fruit-tree expert, and preacher among them. Henry at one time painted still-life pictures in oil for sale locally but sold none, mainly because the religious Plain People of the area forbade any such frivolous, worldly decorations on their walls. Henry was always in the wrong place at the wrong time—he even managed to run a likely product called the Celebrated H. H. Hershey’s Cough Drops into the ground just as the famous Smith brothers were beginning to build their fortune. For a long time it seemed as if Milton was following in his father’s footsteps, but eventually, with the encouragement and financial help of his mother and her maiden sister—not to say their bossy pushing—he made it in the candy business.
Devotees of great moments in industry may draw in their breath in fearful contemplation of the losses the world might have sustained if Milton’s first job had worked out better for him—he was hired as printer’s devil on a pacifist newspaper in Millwood Gap called Der Waffenlose Waechter (it was bilingual). Thumb-fingered Milton spilled a lot of the type, and, as he later told a biographer, “I lost my job when I let my old straw hat fall on the form rollers—which I may have done on purpose.” His mother promptly apprenticed him to a Lancaster confectioner, Joseph H. Royer, who, on Fanny’s insistence, soon promoted the young Hershey from handle man on the icecream freezer to the candy kitchen, where he might learn something. One night when he left the kitchen, he forgot to turn off the blower on the peanut roaster, so that the street outside was soon filled with burnt peanut shells. But he stayed on, and in the summer of 1876, when he was nineteen, his mother and aunt decided he should quit and go into business for himself in Philadelphia. Aunt Mattie kicked in a hundred fifty dollars to help out and offered to take him to the big city and find him a place.
Mattie found him a storefront at 935 Spring Garden Street and returned to Lancaster, temporarily leaving Milton to his own devices. He boiled up penny candy in the cellar and peddled it by day, but there was no profit in it. He tried to improve business by having fancy fourcolor cards printed up, with the legend “M. S. H ERSHEY, DEALER IN FINE CONFECTIONERY, FRUITS, NUTS, & C .” circling a picture of a magnificent building labelled “length 1402 feet width 360 feet,” but upon close scrutiny the building turned out to be Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 rather than the Hershey plant. Meanwhile his mother had to move to Philadelphia and open a boarding house to keep him afloat. Mattie also helped by donating her savings to Milton’s business, and when this wasn’t enough, she borrowed more money from her brother Abraham and finally moved to Philadelphia too, where she and Fanny spent their evenings wrapping bits of taffy called French Secrets that had little rhymes printed on the wrappers.
The business was still holding on five years later, when Henry Hershey turned up, after a long absence, with some candy-display cases he had had made for promoting his failed cough drops. Milton bought them for $350, and Henry headed for the silver mines of Colorado. The useless cabinets seemed to weigh on Milton’s spirits, and he suffered a moderate nervous breakdown, leaving the candy business to the women and one employee until he could recover. Not long after this the firm’s delivery horse bolted, tipping over a wagonload of candies, which were a total loss. This finished the M. S. Hershey business in Philadelphia, and Milton, with his mother and aunt, returned to Lancaster with nothing left of the enterprise but a few candy kettles. Hershey was twenty-five years old.
Within a few weeks optimism returned to Hershey’s spirit, and he travelled to Denver to join his father. He found a job with a caramel maker there and learned the advantages in taste and quality of adding fresh milk to the candy-making process. When his father moved to Chicago to take work as a carpenter, Milton followed him, and soon the two were starting up another new candy business together—until they loaned all the firm’s capital to a friend who failed to repay it. Milton tried New Orleans, and then, in 1883, he attacked New York City, working days in Huyler’s candy factory and boiling his own candy at night in his landlady’s kitchen. Soon he had his own candy store on Sixth Avenue, near Bryant Park. Within a few months he enthusiastically moved to larger quarters on West Forty-third Street, assuming he would be able to break the lease on the first store, but discovered he could not. The payment of double rent was about to break him, so to the rescue came his mother and Aunt Mattie—and his father as well, who set out to sell his son’s wares off a pushcart. Milton was still losing money, but, like a gambler, he impetuously ordered ten thousand dollars’ worth of new candy machinery on credit. Shortly after this another horse dumped another wagonload of merchandise into the street, and the New York business was finished for good. Milton had only the clothes in his rented room—until a thief stole those. So it was back to Lancaster once again.
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.
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.
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.
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).
On April 2 twelve hundred workers closed down the plant with a sit-down strike. They left the next day, then occupied the plant again on April 6. The closing of the plant meant that eight hundred thousand pounds of milk arriving in Hershey daily had no market. Local farmers were losing ten thousand dollars a day. Five thousand marchers, including several hundred nonunion Hershey workers and a lot of angry farmers, paraded in the nearby town of Palmyra by torchlight that night, accompanied by local fire trucks, the Hershey Drum and Bugle Corps, the Boy Scouts, and the American Legion. “Hershey’s in America, Let’s Keep It Here” read one banner. The letters CIO were spelled out: “Communistic Idiot Outlaws.” The farmers and independent workers held a big meeting in the sports arena the next day as strikers ran up the cio flag on a pole on the factory roof—above the Stars and Stripes. The farmers gave the strikers an ultimatum—out of the plant by 1 P.M. —and then marched on the factory. In spite of a week of continuous tension there were no police on the scene. At the last moment the strikers decided to give up, but it was too late—there was no stopping the angry crowd, armed with whips, iron pipe, baseball bats, axe handles, rubber hose, ice picks, and carving knives. They forced their way inside—a union man accused a company executive of unlocking the main entrance for them from the inside—and beat and shoved the strikers outside to run a long gauntlet of two rows of farmers and independents who struck and slashed at them and kicked them on their way past.
“The frightened strikers ran all the harder,” reported the New York Times , “pulling coats and shirts over their heads. Many collapsed, with blood streaming from swollen faces and misshapen noses. At the end of the blocklong line they were searched. Then they sprinted for freedom and for hiding places. The former attackers now formed stretcher squads and helped the most battered of their enemies to waiting automobiles for the short trip to Hershey Hospital. The two strike leaders, Russell Behman and John Loy, were not let off quite so easily. They were taken over to a spacious section of the lawn fronting the factory and were subjected to a two-fisted drubbing which left them quite exhausted.” Later Loy blamed Hershey president Murrie for failing to call off the crowd; the governor blamed the local sheriff for letting the mob move in with no police hindrance whatever. Final count was about fifty wounded, two seriously from ice picks shoved into their stomachs. As for Hershey, the old man himself had watched the farmers marching on his factory, and a reporter wrote: “As they passed by singing, tears streamed from his eyes, but he did not speak.”
“It was never the same in Hershey after that,” Sam Rosenberger says now. “Before, people were more like a big family.” The battle split the community; a Times reporter had noted that “one of the chief interests … is trying to find where one’s neighbors stand in the dispute. The newspaper photographs of the mêlée are very useful in this connection.” Ray Carlucetti, the present business manager of Local 464, Chocolate Workers, says that scars are still not quite healed and that among older union members now, “If you find one who is really all out gungho for the union, you can guess maybe he was a scab back in those days.” After the beatings the strike faltered, with a few attempts at picketing by the cio while the independents handed out handbills reading “Sit-down is a strike against orphan boys.” In his first interview in fourteen years Hershey blamed the strike on “foolish radicals.”
“Four or five of them simply misled a small minority of the employes into this strike,” Hershey told Robert S. Bird of the Times . “I know that many of these strikers are people I brought here during the depression years. I made work for them during the depression. There was no depression in Hershey. I know the chocolate business all the way through, and I am not sure that some union leaders who would tell me how to run the chocolate business know very much about it. ” Hershey said he thought that a union was not necessary to his employees’ welfare. “Of course, ” he said, “I know the answer that will be made to that statement. Old man Hershey has got something up his sleeve. People said that around here thirty years ago when I wanted to start a co-operative store. Well, I gave up the idea. I had a band around here about that time and I decided to help them out by giving them a hall rent free. I even let them put in a candy and a tobacco counter to help swell their profits. But I found after a great Fourth of July celebration that they still had no money in the till. They had a turnout of people that should have given them a good profit, but they had no profit, and they did not know why. They had smoked up the cigars and cigarettes and drank the pop themselves. The co-operative idea didn’t work and I decided to take over the business end of it myself.”
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.
As far as the chocolate business in Hershey is concerned, the only major change since the founder’s days—except maybe the attitudes of the workers—has been the advent of national advertising. For decades Hershey’s cavalier refusal to advertise had rankled admen everywhere, for obviously his success seemed to prove that it did not, after all, necessarily pay to advertise. In fact Hershey did indulge in certain kinds of advertising, but not the kind that used advertising agencies. His name was printed large in silver letters on his wrappers, so that wherever they might fall, they became an effective ad in themselves—Hershey was said always to have kicked them right side up with his toe when he saw them in a gutter. Before World War I Hershey bars had post cards inside the wrapper illustrating such milk-chocolate themes as a cocoa pod or a herd of cows in a meadow, and over the years advertising copy has been prepared for use by retailers. Although all this was a far cry from the usual advertising programs of national corporations, the New York Sunday News not long ago gave Hershey special credit: “Hershey ran what was undoubtedly the most costly long-term promotional campaign in history—the community of Hershey itself.” One deep thinker in the advertising field believes Hershey had automatically good sales luck because of the pleonasm of his name—the repeated meaning, or double feminine, of her and she .
But it wasn’t until 1970 that the first Hershey television commercials surprised the advertising fraternity. One such precious minute shows a herd of angry cows charging down the main street of Jefferson City, Missouri, because they have heard that the local children are not drinking their milk. Following the cows are some jeeps loaded with Hershey Instant. Describing the dénouement, a New York Times advertising columnist wrote: “The kids, bowing to this show of force and flavor, drink their milk. The cows leave udderly victorious.”
The Hershey firm, among businessmen, has a reputation for stodginess. A Wall Street broker explains, “When your company has to feed, clothe, house and educate 1,500 orphans every year, you just have to be conservative.” Nevertheless, the company is putting out a new chocolate and peanut item called the Rally bar, and chairman Schiller recklessly promises, “I personally will eat every one of these we don’t sell.” The orphanage has, in fact, accrued so much money it doesn’t know quite how to spend it, and recently it had to get special legal permission to give away fifty million dollars for a new medical center for Pennsylvania State University. The school already has treated itself to a massive Founder’s Hall that looks like a recently added attraction to the Strip in Las Vegas; a huge mosaic set in its floor illustrates “twelve significant events in the life of our founder.” The resortlike poshness everywhere in the school is defended by its president on the ground that “if a boy is presented with a bright, clean wall, he won’t make a mark on it. ”
But some of the union members would like some ofthat bright, clean wall for themselves. They do not want it given to them; they’ll settle for the cash and make one of their own. Ray Carlucetti, the union business manager, admits that the current average pay of $3.80 an hour is near the top of the chocolate industry, but this fact still does not stop the undercurrents of restiveness that began back in 1937 and that most recently broke out in a wildcat strike of three thousand workers on June 17, 1972. At midnight a mob that reminded old-timers of the pioneer cio strikers stoned passing cars, threw nails on streets, and beat up two nonunion workers, college students with temporary jobs whose cars were smashed up for good measure. The students were released from the hospital after treatment for cuts, bruises, and sprains, but for a time it looked as if the spirit of the old CIO had been ghosted back into Hershey to settle the old score. After sixty state policemen broke up the riot, the protesters, who were disputing factory rules on work breaks, agreed to arbitrate the matter. Carlucetti, who did not condone the demonstration, points out that the workers for years have had all this wealth paraded before them, in the town and out at the school, and they feel it is about time they got their hands on some of it, too. They do, of course, still get the traditional Christmas turkey from the company.
When Hershey died, a New York Herald Tribune editorialist commented, “Was it not at bottom a despotism, no matter how benevolent and practical? The entire scheme was enlightened, intelligent and permeated with a rare human decency. And yet … it was a sort of feudalism. ” It was a fair enough epitaph.