- Historic Sites
"The Sweetest Place On Earth”
Milton Hershey built a company town so pleasant it became a tourist attraction
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
In the “really big 3D Show,” a 3-D cartoon at the Chocolate World visitors’ center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a despotic film producer hijacks a lecture about the life of Milton Hershey—founder of the town and its eponymous chocolate company and amusement park—proposes different boilerplate movie concepts (an action picture, then a romance, and finally a cast-of-thousands-of-dancine-chocolate-hars musical) to spice up the history he finds so drab. Luckily for tourists seeking more than a sugar fix, his is an opinion belied everywhere else in the central-Pennsylvania town, as each public building finds room for a display on the Milton Hershey story.
Travelers lured by the potentially unfortunate combination of ample candy and high-speed roller coasters might be surprised at how strongly Hershey pushes its history, especially since most theme-park towns (if the usual strips of garish souvenir shops and miniature-golf grounds can be called that) seem to have risen, devoid of a past, from the feeder highways that connect their parks to the interstate. Despite the fact that where most communities have a town square, Hershey has an amusement park, this is in all other respects a dignified factory town, with the well-groomed, tree-lined nucleus giving way to white farmhouses with American flags and tidy lawns in the residential outskirts. And although the skeletons of wooden roller coasters tower directly over Hershey’s modest brick homes and gas stations, it is the smokestacks of the chocolate factory that loom largest in the area’s past and present.
The community that calls itself “the sweetest place on earth” manages to escape being cloying (streetlights in the shape of Kisses overlooking Cocoa and Chocolate Avenues are the only aggressively cutesy elements) because its blueprint was not for a tourist trap but for a model company town. The biggest attractions—the park, zoo, theater, and museum—were erected by Milton Hershey to enrich the lives of his employees.
The 44-year-old Hershey chose the cornfields of central Pennsylvania, just a few miles from his birthplace, as the site of his chocolate business in 1901 after trying, and failing, as a candymaker in four cities. By 1894 he had made a small fortune producing caramels but decided the future was in the democradzation of milk chocolate, which at the time was a luxury item produced only in Europe. He built his new chocolate factory for easy access to the surrounding dairy farms. It wasn’t long before he had also mapped out the accompanying town that would be named Hershey by a public contest in 1906. As a progressive he believed he would get more out of his workers if he gave them pleasant living conditions; to that end he built houses with lawns, a trolley system, bank, library, school, and all the shops a town needs to thrive. If Hershey expected to control the town in return—stories abound of his unannounced inspections of the milk cans at the soda shop and his orders to residents to paint chipped fences—no one seemed to think the tradeoff too great.
His first plat had already made room for two of today’s travel destinations. In 1907 the amusement park was little more than a collection of schoolyard playground equipment for the enjoyment of his employees, but tourists had already begun trickling in, so in the 1920s the town got its first roller coaster. Another early source of Hershey-sponsored entertainment, the Hershey Zoo, now called ZooAmerica, opened in 1916 with a collection of Hershey’s own animals.
Despite the continued resilience of those early town perks, it wasn’t until the Depression that modern Hershey started to take shape. Perhaps the only town in the country actually to prosper during the 1930s, it thrived because Hershey vowed his Utopia would never see a breadline. Instead he funded a massive building boom that gave rise to the most visited buildings in today’s Hershey and delivered wages to more than 600 workers. He admitted that his intentions were partly selfish: “If I don’t provide work for them, I’ll have to feed them. And since building materials are now at their lowest cost levels, I’m going to build and give them jobs.”
He seems to have spared no expense; most of the new buildings were strikingly opulent. The first to be finished was the three-million-dollar limestone Community Center, home to the 1,904-seat Venetian-style Hershey Community Theater, which has played host since 1933 to touring Broadway shows and to music, dance, and opera performances. It offers just as much to look at when the lights are up and the curtains closed. The floors in the aptly named Grand Lobby are polished Italian lava rock, surrounded by marble walls and capped with a bas-relief ceiling showing sheaves of wheat, beehives, swans, and scenes from Roman mythology. With the dazzling inner foyer, Hershey thumbed his nose even harder at the ravages of the Depression: The arched ceiling is tiled in gold, the fire curtain bears a painting of Venice, and the ceiling is studded with 88 tiny lightbulbs to re-create a star-lit night.