- 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
Grander still is the Hotel Hershey. As inspiration Hershey gave his architect a postcard of a hotel he and his wife had visited on the Mediterranean. In 1933, at the cost of two million dollars, he had, as the travel writer Lowell Thomas described it, “a palace that out-palaces the palaces of the Maharajas of India.” Surrounded by more than 20 acres of formal gardens, the hotel houses a hardwood-paneled Moorish lounge, a sunlit circular dining room, and a mosaic-tiled indoor Spanish courtyard. Although his friends questioned the wisdom of opening a 190-room hotel in central Pennsylvania at the height of the Depression, Hershey’s instincts were sound. By the end of the decade the town had found a second industry in the hordes of tourists arriving from around the country.
The same year the hotel and theater were completed, Hershey bought a collection of Native American relics and opened the Hershey Indian Museum. In 1935 he added a Pennsylvania Dutch exhibit, and after taking over a bigger building in 1938, the renamed Hershey Museum expanded to fill its cavernous space ” with artifacts representing the history of the town. A short film, photos, and personal effects illustrate Hershev’s life and his desire to make milk chocolate universally available. Visitors relive the company’s early history through worker scrapbooks, uniforms, and still-functioning original equipment. Modern desk jockeys can even push a button that activates an enormous assemblage of metal gears, belts, and levers once used to mix chocolate paste and imagine how loud the factory must have been.
That same factory, both literally and figuratively the center of Hershey life, is still operating, and many of these attractions, clustered as they are in the minutely groomed downtown, seem to butt right up against it. The zoo’s mallards swim in the shadow of the company’s 24 145-foot silos, and Hershey built his mansion nearby so that smokestacks emblazoned with his name rose just across his front lawn. But despite the factory’s dominance in town history, visitors can no longer tour the works. By the early 1970s it was pulling in thousands of visitors a day, and in 1973, fearing a Willy Wonkacaliber disaster, Hershey Foods opened up a replacement visitors’ center a short walk away.
Chocolate World is a shiny toy version of its working counterpart. Scaled-down impotent smokestacks poke up from a square brick building sporting the same blank industrial windows you’d see on the real thing, except that this building is adorned with ornate molding and a clock tower topped by two giant silver Kisses. Guides costumed as pieces of candy usher visitors inside to a free simulated factory tour, an elaborate ride in which they are carried past miniature farms, animatronic cows, and working models of candymaking equipment. At the end the riders receive complimentary Hershey bars before being deposited in the food court, where they can examine photos of a young Milton Hershey and buy giant Mr. Goodbars by the case.
All these business and cultural achievements add up to a very impressive portrait of Milton Hershey, but they don’t begin to equal the impact of his biggest legacy. In 1918 Hershey, a recent widower with no children, transferred all his stock holdings from the Hershey company—worth $60 million at the time—to a trust for the Hershey Industrial School located on the outskirts of town. The school housed and educated local orphan boys (girls, he reasoned, were more likely to be taken in by local families). In so doing, Hershey became father to thousands of children. Today the renamed Milton Hershey School is the majority shareholder in Hershey Foods, making it the only school in the world with more money than it knows what to do with. Worth $5.4 billion, the K-12 institution provides room and board, clothes, computers, medical and dental services, and college and postgraduate tuition assistance to 1,300 girls and boys a vear from lower-income families.
Driving past the school’s acres upon acres of soccer fields and large-windowed facilities, better than those at most universities, one might find it easy to be a little envious of these disadvantaged kids. But after a visit to the domed, marble-floored Founders’ Hall, with nattily dressed children (not a pair of jeans in sight) dashing past a tapestry from the former Hershey mansion, it becomes clear how truly remarkable the place is. Alongside the requisite statue of Hershey, exhibits in the hall’s rotunda delineate the school’s curriculum and application process, while a connecting corridor honors the outstanding alumni for each year, all of whom have achieved great success as a result of Hershey’s gift.