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The Chocolate King

Philanthropist and Candy Maker Milton Hershey Believed in Three Things: Chocolate, Children and Cigars
W. Greg Rothman
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

The terms "industrial magnate" and "factory town" conjure up turn-of-the century names like Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller, and images of opulent living contrasted to the miserable working conditions of the era. Yet one man of that time who fit the broader stereotype behaved differently than his wealthy contemporaries.

Milton Snavely Hershey, commonly referred to as "The Chocolate King," was born in 1857 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and raised among the "Plain People" of the Mennonite faith. Hershey was to chocolate what Henry Ford was tothe automobile, and he can rightfully be called the founder of the American chocolate industry. Today, the Hershey empire in southeastern Pennsylvania includes a school, university medical center, amusement park, museum, zoo, semiprofessional hockey team, hotel, two world-class golf courses and the world's largest manufacturer of chocolate. The town of Hershey itself is a legacy to a very successful man who provided for his workers. It stemmed rom his desire to create a kind of paradise that met all his factory workers' needs.

Milton Hershey had three lifelong passions--chocolate, children and cigars. Though it is not clear when he began smoking cigars, it was in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that he first became known for them. He purchased his preferred Golden Lion brand in the DeMuth Tobacco Store, which is still in operation. Lyman Windolph, a friend of Hershey's from Lancaster, said, "He was one of the biggest smokers I ever knew. I never saw him without a cigar. He must have had a wonderful constitution." Indeed he did; Hershey smoked eight to 10 cigars a day until his death in 1945 at the age of 88.

Hershey's passion for cigars was matched by his love for children. Having come from a broken household and unable to have children with his wife, he founded a school for disadvantaged youth that aimed to provide a solid education in a warm, reassuring atmosphere. The school flourishes to this day, thanks to the $60 million Hershey put in trust for it.

Hershey began life as the only son of an unlikely and ultimately incompatible couple, Henry Hershey and Fanny Snavely. Henry was an unreliable but innovative father who loved books and spent his life wandering, enthralled with the new. His life was filled with ideas, many of which came to pass, though not by his hand. Henry Hershey's life was marked by failure and a lack of perseverance.

Fanny, on the other hand, was a forceful, hardworking, some would say humorless woman who one day was left with no one but Milton to whom to dedicate her life. Henry left her when Milton was young; their daughter, Serena, died at the age of four. Fanny believed, like her fellow Mennonites, that working hard represented devotion to God and that wealth was a sign of God's grace. To his benefit and perhaps unwittingly, Milton united these disparate strains and became both innovative and hardworking.

For a time, the Hersheys traveled where Henry's wanderings took them, which meant that Milton's education was sporadic. He did not do well in school, nor did he enjoy it. After the fourth grade, with encouragement from his book-suspicious mother, Milton left school. His distaste for reading and writing left him essentially illiterate and left the world without a personal written record of his life or beliefs. However, his life, full of deeds, serves as a text for what was important to Hershey. Ronald D. Glosser, president and chief executive officer for the Hershey Trust Co., calls Milton Hershey "a common man with an uncommon touch."

After a four-year apprenticeship to Lancaster confectioner Joseph Royer, Milton was encouraged to go out on his own. His Aunt Mattie provided $150 in venture capital. On June 1, 1876, as America prepared for its centennial celebration, the 18-year-old Hershey opened his first candy business, choosing Philadelphia over Lancaster. He set up shop in a little brick house at 935 Spring Garden Street. M.S., as he was called, worked all night making candy that he sold by day, with his mother and aunt often laboring by his side. Despite his hard work and the success of the penny candy, called French Secrets (a message was wrapped with the candy), it was not enough to pay his expenses. Sugar dealers were unwilling to give him credit and the price of cane was high. (This experience forged in Hershey a lifelong concern about the cost of sugar cane.) After seven struggling years, and in debt to his relatives, he closed his shop.

Hershey moved to Denver, where his father was working in the silver mines. He found a job with another candy maker, where he learned the priceless secret of mixing fresh milk into caramels, which extended the shelf life and enhanced the flavor of the candy. From Denver, Hershey moved briefly to Chicago with his father, where he found too much competition in the industry. He also tried New Orleans, but discovered that it would be too expensive to move his candy-making machines from Philadelphia. Concluding that it would be cheaper to open a shop in New York City, Hershey moved there and began working at Huyler's, a well-known confectioner. Every evening he made batches of taffy in his landlady's kitchen. He put the wrapped taffy pieces in a basket and sold them on the streets. His mother and Aunt Mattie again arrived to help with the business.

Hershey decided to take a risk and acquire cough drop machinery on credit. Though he learned the manufacturing steps that he would later use to mass-produce chocolate (which up until then had been a handmade luxury item), the cough drop business failed; he had only enough money to send his mother and aunt home. When he later returned to Lancaster, his uncles (and former patrons) refused to give him any more money or a place to stay. His friend and former employee, William "Lebbie" Lebkicher, took him in and paid for the shipping of his machinery. (Years later, at Lebkicher's funeral, Hershey said, "We just buried the best friend I ever had.")

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