A streetlight on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Photo: Dennis K. Johnson (Getty Images)
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

In Chicago, where I live, any industrial magnate who has the temerity to build an entire company town and name it after himself will end up buried in a grave covered in concrete and steel so none of his former employees will dig up the corpse and hang it in effigy or whatever else disgruntled former employees do the remains of their despised boss. Such was the case, anyway, of George Pullman, the railroad sleeping car magnate of Pullman, Illinois, which has since been absorbed into the city of Chicago. (His very secure tomb is in Graceland Cemetery on the city’s north side.)

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Central Pennsylvania is a much gentler place. Or maybe it’s just that it’s hard to be that much of an asshole if you manufacture candy. All that sugar must coalesce deep down in your heart. And so the residents of Hershey, Pennsylvania still respectfully refer to the town’s founder and namesake Milton S. Hershey as “Mr. Hershey.” (The newspapers during his lifetime, on the other hand, frequently referred to him as the Chocolate King.)

Mr. Hershey in 1923
Mr. Hershey in 1923
Photo: Underwood Archives (Getty Images)

Mr. Hershey only got into chocolate after he sold out his first candy business for $1 million in 1900. (That’s the equivalent of more than $30 million today.) That business was caramels, and it was clearly doing quite well. But Hershey had seen new methods of chocolate manufacturing at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and believed he had seen the future. Caramels, he declared, were a passing fad, but chocolate was forever. By 1903, Hershey had worked out his own formula for producing chocolate. It was not as exacting about the quality of milk as the Swiss and German chocolates he’d seen in Chicago. On the other hand, he could sell it for far cheaper, for a nickel, to be precise. The method remains proprietary, but many suspect that it relies upon a chemical process that keeps the milk from fermenting but also makes it taste sour. Say what you want about the quality of Hershey’s chocolate (and critics have said plenty): suddenly a chocolate bar was no longer a luxury product, which alone should be a reason to elevate Mr. Hershey to industrial sainthood.

But of course there’s more. The Chocolate King was a despot, but a benevolent one. He was forever guided by the principles of his Mennonite upbringing. He bought all his milk from local Pennsylvania farmers. He didn’t have windows in his factory because he didn’t want his workers to get distracted, but he built them a model town to live in, with nice modern houses and shops and everything. He even built them a theater and an amusement park so they could have fun when they weren’t working. He also built a cemetery so they could rest when they died. When the Depression hit and the demand for chocolate declined, Mr. Hershey decided that would be a great time to put his laborers to work building a big, fancy hotel so they could collect honest pay for honest work (or something like that). He had them build a circular dining room so no one would have to sit in a dark corner in disgrace. He donated the first floor of his own home to the Hershey Country Club to serve as its clubhouse. Since he and Mrs. Hershey were unable to have children of his own, Mr. Hershey decided he would build a school for orphans. (White, Christian, male orphans. It was 1909, and, benevolent or not, Mr. Hershey was still a man of his time.) In 1918, three years after Mrs. Hershey died, he decided to put his entire share of the Hershey company—$60 million—into a trust to support the orphans. And when he died much later, in 1945, the Hershey Trust became the majority shareholder of the Hershey Company, the owner of the Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company (that is, the amusement park and the resorts), and the administrator of the school, which now provides free tuition and board for children—no longer required to be white and male—whose parents can no longer care for them.

One fun fact about Mr. Hershey: he was so fond of tasting his own product that he developed tooth decay. I sincerely hope that’s part of the hygiene curriculum in Hershey public schools.

I visited Hershey back in January and got an earful about Mr. Hershey from nearly everyone I met. That’s because everyone I met was an employee of one of the Hershey companies, and I get the distinct impression that they hear a lot about Mr. Hershey during orientation and staff training. The person who told me a lot of it was a friendly bartender named Samantha, who works at one of the restaurants in the Hershey Lodge, the second Hershey hotel. The whole story sounded incredible. Whoever heard of someone that rich being that nice? Who wouldn’t want to live in a company town devoted to chocolate, where the main street is called Chocolate Avenue? The day I visited was mild and sunny, and everything looked very quaint and peaceful. The roller coasters in Hersheypark looped up against the blue sky, visible from nearly everywhere, and the six milk silos from the main Hershey plant stood straight and tall, the image of American prosperity.

The original Hershey plant
The original Hershey plant
Photo: Dennis K. Johnson (Getty Images)

The Hershey Trust, unlike many of the tax-exempt foundations established by Mr. Hershey’s fellow industrialists in the early 20th century (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller), was specified by its founder to serve a very specific group of people, the people of Hershey, Pennsylvania. It’s impossible to forget where you are and what built the town—or who signs your paychecks. The streetlights are shaped like Hershey’s Kisses: they alternate between wrapped and unwrapped. Hershey employees shuttle around town on official company business in little electric cars decorated to look like the packaging for Hershey Bars or Kisses or Kit Kats or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The artificial smell of chocolate is piped into the hotel lobbies, and little kisses decorate the wallpaper and are embossed on the sheets. The plants loom over everything. There are three: the six-siloed Hershey plant, another plant for Reese’s products (H.B. Reese was a protege of Mr. Hershey who left his job at Hershey to found his own candy factory; the two companies merged in 1963), and the old factory, which has been converted into corporate headquarters.

Hershey, Samantha told me, is also a union town. People don’t form unions, she said, if they’re happy. This is true. Once I myself worked for a company that unionized, even though we had an air hockey table, all the cereal we could eat, and a room (well, a small, doorless closet) filled with candy. Perks, after all, don’t pay the rent, even if your landlord is also your boss. Maybe especially.

When I got home, I looked through old newspaper archives trying to figure out what would have made the people of Hershey unhappy enough to unionize and stay that way. It appeared that in 1912, Mr. Hershey informed his employees that “you can’t drink whisky and work for me.” (This story was recirculated several times by the temperance movement in a syndicated column called Temperance Notes.) Later on, during World War I, he got involved in some unpleasantness involving an overpriced marble fountain—Mr. Hershey favored Italian neoclassical architecture, which allowed him to employ local masons and stonecutters—that had him in and out of court for several years, but newspaper reporters seemed more amused by this than scandalized.

The organization of the union appeared to come out of nowhere—at least as far as the newspapers were concerned—and disappeared almost as quickly, in the form of one story from the Associated Press in 1937. The Hershey workers staged a sit-down strike. Mr. Hershey tried to appeal to their sense of charity by reminding them that it cost $1,000 a year to educate an orphan. This did not go over well: workers retorted that they should be worth at least as much as two orphans. Then the dairy farmers got angry because Hershey’s was one of their main clients. They and a group of what was described as “loyal employees” stormed the factory to break the strike. Their leaders told them, “Be sure you don’t hit a friend.” (There’s the trademark Hershey wholesomeness!) Nonetheless, there was blood. That brought an end to the unionization effort, but the workers successfully unionized three years later as Local Chapter Number 464 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union; the Local 464 building is short and squat and right in the middle of town.

To this day, at least according to In Chocolate We Trust, an ethnographic study of the town and corporation by Peter Kurie, himself a Hershey native, union members refer to Mr. Hershey as “Milton,” sort of like the way adults refer to their parents by their first names to show that they’ve moved past feelings of awe straight into contempt. Over time, the number of employees in Hershey has shrunk, due to the company moving some of its operations to Mexico; in 2011, when Kurie was doing his study, 1,100 people worked in the Pennsylvania plant, approximately a third of the number of workers at the company’s peak in the 1960s. And the union has had reason to strike, most recently over health benefits. But after the resolution of the most recent strike, in 2002, the union took an active role in a townwide campaign to prevent the Hershey company from being sold. The reasoning, one union official told Kurie, was that the known quantity was better than the unknown. That’s a strange sort of loyalty.

What would happen if the Hershey Corporation were ever sold? There are some who believe that Mr. Hershey was considering selling out before he died, that he would have wanted to keep making money. But no one knows for sure. A few Hershey workers complained to Kurie that the “new people” were more interested in making a profit that preserving the family feeling that was such a part of Hershey culture. (William Dearden, the CEO who revived Hershey’s fortunes in the 1980s by making sure that Reese’s Pieces were featured prominently in the movie E.T., was a graduate of the Milton Hershey School.) For now, though, both Hershey the corporation and Hershey the town remain a relic of early 20th century industrialization, when workers were expected to love their leader.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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