It would be hard not to have a sweet day in Hershey, PA. I’ve been through this town a few times in my years on the road, but what I remember most from those times passing through were the streetlights, which are shaped like Hershey Kisses. So cool! After a recent visit to Chocolate World and its various Hershey-related attractions in late November, I decided to do a little research and learn more about how “the sweetest place on earth” came to be.
What’s known today as “The Sweetest Place on Earth” (Hershey, PA) was originally called Derry Church. On September 13, 1857, a little boy was born on a farm outside of town. Milton Hershey was the only surviving child of Fannie and Henry Hershey, and he was raised in the strict discipline of the Mennonite Faith. His family moved frequently, which interrupted Milton’s schooling, leaving him with a limited education. He only completed the 4th grade, but he did not let that hold him back in the company and town that would one day have his name.
Milton established his first candy making business in Philadelphia after a 4-year apprenticeship with a Lancaster, PA candy maker. This business failed, as did his attempts in Chicago and New York. In 1883, he was finally successful after returning to Pennsylvania and establishing the Lancaster Carmel Co. This company became an outstanding success and set the stage for Hershey’s future accomplishments.
In 1893, Hershey was fascinated by German chocolate-making machines featured at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shortly after the exposition, he bought equipment for his Lancaster plant and started making a variety of chocolate creations. In 1900 he sold the Lancaster Carmel Co. for one million dollars and began to concentrate exclusively on his chocolate business. In 1903 he returned to Derry Church to build a factory because there he could obtain large supplies of fresh milk that he would use to perfect and produce milk chocolate. At the time, milk chocolate was a Swiss luxury, but Hershey wanted to bring it to the masses.
The Hershey brand was born in 1894 with the introduction of Hershey’s cocoa, the first product available to the public. Milton later created the flagship Hershey Bar, that was originally just a square of chocolate. Happiness for him began with simple ingredients, used in simple processes, creating smiles when people shared his Hershey’s chocolate bars. His factory made what had been a treat only for the rich now affordable for just about everyone.
In 1905, when his new factory was completed, it was the largest chocolate manufacturing plant in the world. It was because of Milton’s determination and through trial-and-error he developed his own formula for milk chocolate, making it the first nationally marketed product of its kind. In 1906, after the growing popularity of the chocolate, the town was renamed Hershey. But Milton didn’t just want to make chocolate – he wanted to build a town around his factory that would provide a meaningful, happy and comfortable life for his workers.
A famous quote from Mr. Hershey is: “If you do good, you will do well.” Another is: “The help-the-other-fellow principle is the only one that will succeed in business.” So much good came out of Hershey’s success, it only makes sense that he said these types of statements, because he really was a good person who cared about his fellow man.
The vision he had for Hershey, PA was not like most industrial towns of the time, filled with faceless row houses. His model was a real hometown with tree-lined streets and one-family homes with nice lawns. He wanted inexpensive public transportation, a quality public school system and extensive cultural and recreational opportunities.
Mr. Hershey believed that happy workers made better workers, and the park he built in town was a big part of making his workers happy. On April 24, 1907, Hershey Park opened with a baseball game played on the new athletic field. The park’s original appeal was its simplicity – landscaped with trees and wooded groves that provided shade for thousands of people without being crowded. The original main buildings included a rustic bandstand and pavilion, which served as a stage for theater and vaudeville productions. The following year, a merry-go-round was added.
Adjoining the pavilion, a large amphitheater was built and described as a “model of excellence” by many. This amphitheater offered 1,500 tiered seats on a sloped hillside. The sign at the entrance read, “Ye who enter here leave dull cares behind.” At the time, it was one of the most acoustically perfect structures built. It wasn’t long before trains and trolleys were bringing thousands of visitors to the park.
The Great Building Campaign began during the Great Depression to put people to work, and out of that the monumental structures like The Hotel Hershey, community center, theater, sports arena and stadium were built, turning the town of Hershey into a major tourist attraction which has only kept growing. If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Hershey, the town and its attractions should be added to your bucket list of things to do.
In 1909, Milton Hershey and his wife Catherine, who could not have children of their own, established a school for orphan boys. Today, it is known as the Milton Hershey School. Three years after the premature death of his wife in 1918, Milton endowed the school with his entire fortune of Hershey Chocolate Company stock. The Milton Hershey School Trust, which funds the school to this day, owns controlling interest in The Hershey Company and owns the Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company which oversees many of the area hotels, along with a theme park called Hersheypark. With over $12 billion in assets, the Milton Hershey School is one of the wealthiest primary schools in the world today.
Hershey Kisses have been around since 1907. How did they get their name? The name came from the sound the machine made when dropping the chocolate onto the belt – it sounded like a kiss. In the beginning, these tasty little chocolate drops were wrapped by hand. It wasn’t until 1921 that a machine started doing the job and the little flag was added. Today, these Kisses are one of the most popular candies sold, and some 60 million Kisses are produced each day in Hershey’s two plants.
Another very popular product was introduced in 1926 – Hershey’s Syrup. How many of us still enjoy making homemade chocolate milk or pouring the sweet chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream? Folklore has it that the name S’mores came to be because everyone wanted “some more” of them. A Girl Scout’s handbook is where the first S’more’s recipe appeared in 1927, which included marshmallows, graham crackers and a Hershey bar.
I recently spent a few hours driving around Hershey, PA and visited The Hershey Story museum, and I must say, I had the best peanut butter cookie with a Hershey Kiss on top for only 99 cents! The streets in town are nice, and some of the beautiful big old houses made me want to go to the door and ask to see inside. Looking from the outside, you can imagine what they look like inside, with grand staircases, pocket doors, detailed woodwork, large decorative fireplaces, parlors, a butler’s pantry, real wood floors and so much more. The one thing I didn’t see very many of was “For Sale” signs. All the people that I talked to love their town, its history and living there. They embrace and are happy to share the history of Milton Hershey and the town they call home.
Its winter now, so things were a little quiet, but I am pretty sure that the summer there is crazy. Last year, over 3,300,000 people visited Hersheypark, which has 15 roller coasters. Today, the oldest roller coaster in the park is the Comet, which replaced the Wild Cat in 1946, which was originally called the Joy Ride. The SooperDooperLooper, located in the park, was the first looping roller coaster on the east coast. The Breakers Edge Water Coaster, along with the Whitecap Racer, were both added in 2018, making them the first additions to The Boardwalk at Hersheypark in five years. The Lightning Racer was the first wooden dueling coaster in the United States, and it was introduced in 2000. In 2012, they opened the Skyrush, which is still today one of the highest, fastest and longest roller coasters out there.
As the park continues to grow, one thing hasn’t changed – it’s commitment to their guests to make sweet memories that they can keep forever. I was really surprised at the admission being only $62.95, which gets you in for one day, but it also includes what they call a “Sweet Sneak Peek” with every ticket. The night before your full day at the park, just present your ticket at the main entrance and you can get in up to 3.5 hours for free the night before! Entry into the adjacent water park is included with all summer admission tickets.
Hershey formally organized his growing collection of wild animals in 1910 and called it The Hershey Zoo. The zoo’s first residents were 12 prairie dogs that a family was unable to take care of. The zoo relied on donations, trades with other zoos and animal dealers, but public opinion of animals in captivity caused the zoo to close in 1971. The zoo reopened to the public in 1978 as Zoo America and featured more than 200 animals representing 70 species. Today, the zoo continues to educate the guests about its various animal residents.
The more I learned about this gem of a town in eastern Pennsylvania the more I wanted to know. How a man could fail, not give up, and then go on to build so much is just amazing. And to use his entire fortune to build a school so that young people who might not otherwise get an education have the chance to learn is just heartwarming, to say the least. And all this from a man who himself only completed 4th grade! In the end, the man who started it all was happy to let his accomplishments and products speak for themselves – and Mr. Hershey always placed the quality of his products and well-being of his workers ahead of profits.
Milton Hershey died in 1945, but his company and town are still thriving today. In his honor, September 13 was designated as International Chocolate Day, which is also Hershey’s birthday. The people that I talked to when I called the Chamber of Commerce for park information always ended the call by saying, “Goodbye. Have a sweet day.” As we start 2020, may you all have not only a sweet day, but a sweet year, which hopefully will include a visit to the sweetest place on earth!