History and Chocolate: a Winning Combination


This week’s What I Ate Wednesday is a little different–it’s all about America’s Cholocate Destination: Hershey, PA! This was originally published in June 2012. I had an amazing job with a marketing firm that summer, and they sent me to Pennsylvania for several events. My first trip that summer was to Herskey, PA, and let me tell you, it was one sweet trip!

Hello from Hershey! I’m up here for the weekend, so I thought I’d take in the sights and bring you along with me! Who wouldn’t take an opportunity to visit a land flowing with chocolate? Honestly, I knew very little about Mr. Hershey until now. He was actually a very interesting and inspiring person—I like him! I mean, how do you not like the man who approved this signage:

Chocolate as a health food

He was born to very opposite parents in 1857. His mother Veronica was sensible, frugal, and seemingly reasonable, but his father, Henry, was of the more adventurous and spontaneous type. He was a writer with lots of ideas but little real direction. He wanted to innovate and invent, and perhaps Veronica helped him focus.

At any rate, Henry tried several different business ventures, but none really worked out for him. His son Milton, on the other hand, seemed to have the best from both sides: big dreams, big heart, love of knowledge, and an adventurous spirit! He tried four different businesses, but all four failed.

That’s right: He failed four different times before succeeding… with caramels! He started working as an apprentice in a newspaper printing office, but he accidentally dropped his hat in the printing press one day and got fired! Next he went to a confectioner… and that’s where it all began.

He went into business for himself a few times, trying things out in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver, and married Catherine (Kitty) Sweeney in the meantime. He moved back to Derry Church Township and tried again, but just days before their house was to be foreclosed, he got a huge order for caramels from England! Talk about good timing. That was enough to float him until his next order… then his next… then his next, until he was out of debt and making money!

Originally named Lancaster Caramel Company, he later changed the name to the Hershey Caramel Company. Hershey dabbled in chocolate on the side, and he decided that caramels were just a fad. He knew chocolate was the way of the future, even though at this time it was a delicacy in Europe and hardly even affordable in the States. So he sold his caramel company in 1900 for a million dollars (in 1900 money!) and started on chocolate full-force!

Chocolate Factory

He was not a chemist (he only had a 4th grade education!), but he experimented with all kinds of chocolate-making techniques. He wanted to make it inexpensive and more nutritious, and what he got was very good, at least to the American taste! When he opened his first chocolate plant in 1903, it was only six acres. Hershey Kisses came along in 1907, and the chocolate plant expanded to 35 acres by 1915; by 1979 it was 46 acres, and that’s the same plant they use today! He made chocolates cheaply by using the assembly line idea from Henry Ford, and he strategically put the plant in his hometown in eastern PA, where people needed steady work—right next to the dairy farms! No milk transportation costs means plenty of savings and cheap chocolate!

Now also home to this chocolate-themed park!

Milton Hershey wasn’t like other entrepreneurs of his time because he encouraged innovation. Mr. Reese (of Reese’s peanut butter cups) actually worked for Hershey to begin with! Later, Hershey would acquire the Reese’s company as well. And the Phillippy brothers, employed by Hershey, actually invented the Hershey Kiss Wrapping Machine. From 1907-1921, Hershey had hired people to wrap them ALL by HAND!

There’s a big Kiss for you! I wouldn’t want to wrap that one by hand! 

And speaking of Kisses, the Hershey company decided to stop production from 1942-1949 because of foil rations during WWII. Instead, Hershey focused on making Ration Bars for the troops. He was asked by President Roosevelt to develop something that would be nutritious and caloric enough to sustain troops overseas. And he did it! Hershey was known around the world by the end of the war.

Ration Bar

Hershey was also committed to philanthropy and using every part of the chocolate-making process so there was no waste. He secretly donated $60 million to start an orphanage and school for boys in 1909, which still operates to this day! He sold the cocoa bean shell pieces as mulch, sold perfectly good dairy products that weren’t used in the chocolate-making process (used to make sour cream, cottage cheese, butter, soap, ice cream), and he was so resourceful in his marketing and promotional strategies, the Hershey company never even had to use a big advertizing campaign until the 1970s. He was part Swiss—that’s probably where the innovation, efficiency, and precision came from! But ask a Swiss person what they think of Hershey’s chocolate and you’ll see them turn up their noses. I know. I watched my Swiss friends do it!

He and his wife couldn’t have kids, but that’s why they started the school for boys. People ask, “Why only boys?” Well, back in the early 1900s, the Hersheys visited several orphanages, and they discovered they were overrun with boys. Girls went more quickly because they tended to be “less trouble” and could help around the house. Boys just needed more attention and help. Now, the school is home to boys and girls, and they live in houses with house parents who can give them a stable home life. Upon graduation, each graduate receives $100 from Mr. Hershey—also a tradition that lives on to today! When Mr. Hershey was alive, he even made it a tradition to have about 10 boys over to his house for supper once a month. Pretty generous!

Hershey Home for Boys

And then there’s the town of Hershey itself! It was built, of course, for the workers and their families. Other industrial towns of the time had their good and bad points, and Mr. Hershey took all that into consideration. He wanted people to truly form a community, not just a place to live because of your job, so he encouraged ball teams, innovation, etc., and it was very successful–it’s still around today! Something interesting to me is that he also built another Hershey community—in Cuba! He started that one for his sugar field workers. During the Great Depression, however, he decided to sell those plantations and the community, and he used that money for more necessary local building projects. NONE of the Hershey workers was without a job during the Depression because of that decision! There were seven big projects completed during this time, including the Hershey Hotel (so fancy), Hershey Gardens, and the Hershey Training Facility. Nice stuff that is still around today!

Fun facts about Hershey and the Hersheys:

  • There are three chocolate factories in the town of Hershey alone, including the biggest chocolate factory in the world
  • They make 3-5 billion pounds of chocolate here per day
  • They make 20 billion Reeses peanut butter cups per day here—my favorite
  • Hershey Park opened in 1907
  • The first ride at Hershey Park was the carousel in 1912
  • The first roller coaster at Hershey Park came along in 1920
  • The trolley tour guides pass around free Hershey Kisses, chocolate bars, AND Reeses, so I recommend the tour
  • The Hersheys were supposed to be on the Titanic! Luckily enough for them, there was an emergency at the factory in Hershey, so they took a different ship, the Amerikana, instead; interestingly enough, the Amerikana was one of the few ships that responded to the Titanic distress call
Milton Hershey’s cancelled Titanic ticket

Obviously, I liked the museum and the tour, although it could have been laid out a little better. I feel like I missed some important details, or they were just not included. But I did learn a lot about something I knew next to nothing about!

Hershey Chocolate World was my next stop. (Mostly so I could take the Trolley Tour!) But you know the best part about the tour? The hotel where I’m staying told me to let the tour company know I’m a tour guide myself, so when I told them about it, they asked for a business card and gave me a ticket for FREE! Woohoo! Good thing I got those business cards in last week!

My new tour guide friends!

The tour was great—the guides dressed in early 20th century clothes and sang for us! It was a true performance, complete with costume changes and characters from the past. It was so much fun! We rode the trolley all around downtown and the outskirts of Hershey. My favorite stops were his original house, the school he started, a church that was started in 1729 (Derry Presbyterian Church, and the original building is preserved!), and the Hershey Hotel—it’s gorgeous! I would absolutely recommend it.

18th century church

Other than the tour, Chocolate World was an experience. The smell of chocolate definitely hit you in the face as soon as you come up to the building, though! You can make chocolate and desserts, and you can buy bulk amounts of Hershey products—whatever and however much you want!

Chocolate Factory in the Museum!

And after a big, chocolatey day, it was time to go back to my hotel! I needed to check in and wait for my weekend boss lady to get here so we could start getting set up. I’m here for a classic/antique/racing car event called “The Elegance at Hershey.” More on that soon—it’s pretty sweet!

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