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History Happened Here

"The Sweetest Place On Earth”

June 2024
6min read

Milton Hershey built a company town so pleasant it became a tourist attraction

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.

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.

In our current era of corporate malfeasance, it’s hard to believe that any powerful honcho could be so charitable. But if Hershey had a dark side, you have to dig to find it today. Traces do exist: Those ubiquitous early photos of factory workers show only white faces, and the school didn’t enroll minorities until 1968; an exhibit at the museum tells about a 1937 sit-down strike that ended in violent clashes between the pro-union strikers from the factory and the farmers and anti-union workers. Most recently, in the summer of 2002, townspeople raised a furor when the trust that controls Hershey Foods announced plans to sell it to the highest bidder. After a Pennsylvania judge imposed an injunction against the sale, the trust’s board voted to keep its stock. Problems like that reflect the inevitable growing pains of a town that quickly evolved from one man’s protective fantasy to a community that now puts out more than a billion pounds of candy per year and entertains thousands of visitors a year to boot. Even though Hershey has grown beyond its original mission, it strives to remain, as its founder put it, “an industrial Utopia where the things of modern progress all center in a town that has no poverty, no nuisances, and no evil.”


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