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
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With five failures behind him and out of money (a self-described "unbroken string of failures"), Hershey could easily have given up. But his lifelong affinity for sweets, coupled with his persevering nature, caused him to press on.
He tried again in his native countryside of Lancaster. Here, he finally had his first success, "Crystal A Caramels," in 1886. His luck had turned when a mysterious British importer placed a large order and Hershey persuaded a skeptical local bank to loan him the money to fill it. By the 1890s, Hershey's caramels company had made him a millionaire. His factory covered a Lancaster city block. Hershey's only advertising was the product itself: "Give them quality," he would say. "That's the best advertising in the world."
In 1899, a group of competing caramel manufacturers approached Hershey about creating a broad alliance to take control of the industry. While he had no interest in merging, Hershey had become increasingly interested in chocolate and offered to sell his company, which he did the following year for a million dollars, sagaciously retaining the rights to make his chocolate.
Hershey invested all the profits from the sale to expand his chocolate making, saying, "I'll stake everything on chocolate." He confided in friends, "Caramels are just a fad. The chocolate market will be a permanent one."
While Hershey was on the verge of success in revolutionizing the chocolate industry, his personal life was less sweet. Often lonely, with few friends, the 41-year-old Hershey seemed destined to remain the eternal bachelor. Hershey reportedly looked in the mirror one day and said: "M.S., you're a damned fool, a diamond covered fop in a loud suit." But shortly after, his luck changed when he met and fell in love with the beautiful Catherine Elizabeth "Kitty" Sweeney of Jamestown, New York. Sweeney, a 25-year-old from an Irish Catholic family of modest means, was gay and witty, with a disarming smile and bright blue eyes. The two were married in the rectory at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in May 1898.
Unlike her husband, Kitty was full of joie de vivre. Hershey was raised by a woman whose view of the world did not easily include this refreshing quality of indulgence. Indeed, he may never have encountered such spirit until meeting Kitty. Predictably, she received a cool reception from Fanny, who asked upon meeting her, "Were you ever on the stage?"
In 1903, the couple returned to Hershey's birthplace of Derry Township, 13 miles east of Harrisburg, where Hershey, his business prospering, set out to build the ideal town for his factory workers. He included every amenity, creating what could be called a "New Jerusalem," with perfectly executed streets, parks, homes, rail service, trolley lines--even an amusement park. This unprecedented endeavor found his contemporaries, even associates, unfavorably dumbstruck at Hershey's gargantuan vision and "wasted" money. But Hershey's life was ruled by the long-instilled Biblical maxim of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. He believed that there was a greater good than personal success and comfort.
Success was a new dance for Hershey. When he found it, he was relentless in retaining it. Democratizing chocolate was not enough; he continued to perfect production, creating new machines, from mixing to wrapping. With each new triumph, workers would hear his voice ring out, "We've got it!" (They would also hear Hershey say, "Boys, don't rock the boat, row it.")
Industrial success alone was not enough for Kitty, either. After sadly realizing that they would never have children, Kitty urged M.S. to create a school for disadvantaged children. In what they considered the capstone of their lives, the Hersheys founded The Industrial School on Nov. 15, 1909; it admitted its first pupils, four orphan boys, the following year, using Hershey's birthplace, The Homestead, as both home and school.
With his unstable, nomadic childhood and separated parents, Hershey empathized with orphans. His goal for the school was to provide for children an opportunity for a quality education, a wholesome environment and a loving, caring atmosphere. Still thriving today, the Milton Hershey School has 1,100 students enrolled from throughout the United States. The central campus encompasses more than 3,000 acres, including farmland, streams, ponds and woodlands. Ninety-seven student homes are located throughout the campus, staffed by houseparents whose job is to create stability, express love, and instill discipline, moral values and a work ethic in a family atmosphere. The Hershey School Trust, created to preserve Kitty and Milton's vision, administers their fortune according to their guidelines. Hershey once said his life would be complete if just 50 young people benefited from his school. Today, the school boasts 7,100 alumni. One former student and employee remarks, "If Hershey were here today, I would get down on my knees and thank him for the good he did in my life."
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